Robert Hill & Joanne Lediger — “Revelation” — Self release
Blues music in all of its forms has always been intertwined with the music of the church.
Older blues musicians have often told stories about how, as youngsters, they learned that the blues was “the devil’s music,” and encouraged to engage in more sacred musical forms.
Fortunately, they didn’t always follow that advice, and we have been enjoying various takes on the devil’s music for generations.
Some blues musicians found their calling by combining the sacred and the secular in their music, strapping a blues-styled guitar behind a sanctified message. Artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Son House, Blind Blake, Rev. Gary Davis, and Blind Willie Johnson (a featured artist here) were blues and gospel performers as well as evangelists. The 1920s blues and hokum singer/songwriter Georgia Tom emerged in the early ’30s as the Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey, who almost single-handedly created modern gospel music, and is sometimes referred to as the “father of gospel music.”
In the ’30s and beyond, gospel and jubilee quartets (Blind Boys of Alabama, Blind Boys of Mississippi, Soul Stirrers) carried the same message, while Tharpe gave gospel music an early rock and roll twist with her electric guitar.
All of this is a long-winded introduction to a fine new album by Robert Hill and Joanne Lediger that offers a contemporary look at gospel blues with six covers of traditional songs, one masterful Tom Wait adaptation, and four originals by Hill. He and Lediger have been performing together for the last fifteen years; Hill a slide wizard and Lediger a passionate vocalist. Hill’s daughter Paulina also joins on vocals.
That’s just the right combination for this fascinating selection of powerful songs. The opener is the dramatic call and response of the traditional “John the Revelator,” first recorded in 1930 by Blind Willie Johnson, and in the ’60s by Son House. Lediger’s intense vocals are backed by the visceral fire of Hill’s National Resophonic guitar.
That’s followed by “Run On,” an almost raucous, guitar-driven religious critique with an R&B flavor, then “Soul of a Man,” from another Johnson recording, with a very soulful vocal turn by Hill, backed by Lediger, in a strikingly passionate version.
That’s followed by a terrific bluesy version of Tom Wait’s “Way Down In the Hole,” with Paulina’s vocals leading Hill’s guitar on a wicked journey. Some of you may remember it as the theme from the excellent HBO series “The Wire.” The show highlighted a different version of the song in each of its five seasons, from 2002-2008.
Two Hill originals follow — “Jesus by the Riverside” and “Pay One Way or Another” — both nicely crafted to fit the classic context of the album. “Pay” is an especially tough, rhythmic creation on how “nobody gets out of this world for free,” driven hard by Ed Alstrom on the Hammond B3.
“Nobody’s Fault But Mine” is another soaring Blind Willie Johnson tune, and “A Devil’s Fool” is another original that shuffles joyously into the blues again, this time using Robert’s vocals and some piano to kick everything along.
There’s still more Johnson coming with “Samson and Delilah,” this time a rocking version with tough Paulina Hill vocals. “Preacher’s Blues” is another Hill original, with foot-stomping rhythm and old-timey feel. “Jesus On The Mainline,” based on the Mississippi Fred McDowell ’50s version, is a fitting closer for this session, as all three vocalists join in a mini-choir version. Once again, Hill’s sublime guitar work lifts this song out of the ordinary and into instant classic status.
And that’s typical of the entire album — it’s a joyous effort to polish up some great traditional gospel blues, add some new ones, and produced a smartly crafted set full of lyrical and musical wisdom. The playing and singing are inspired. Don’t be deterred by the “gospel” label. This is not heavy-handed religious music, but music that highlights the intense historical connection between blues and gospel; between the sacred and the secular, and how they both shine when their worlds collide.
It’s all a devil of a good time.
Here’s a 2019 live version of the track “Soul of a Man”:
Joanne Lediger: vocals
Paulina Hill: vocals
Robert Hill: guitar, vocals, harp, keyboards
Steve Gelfand: bass
Frank Pagano: drums
Ed Alstrom: Hammond B3 on “Pay One Way or Another”