Harper and the Boys’ ‘Light’ not blind to talent

Ben Harper's no stranger to the heavenly ways of the Blind Boys of Alabama.

The Blind Boys, a gospel-soul-rock hybrid that has been together in various forms since first meeting at an Alabama institute for the blind in 1939, have been opening for Harper occasionally since 1999.

Harper returned the favor in 2002. The successful roots-rocker lent his considerable lap steel guitar talents and always heart-wrenching vocals to the Blind Boys for Higher Ground — which won a Grammy in the "Best Traditional Gospel Soul Album" category.

But the hugely popular Harper, best known for his saccharine hit "Steel My Kisses" with the Innocent Criminals, plays backup to no one this time around. There Will be a Light almost becomes his show entirely while staying firmly rooted in the Blind Boys' gospel-drenched tradition. The result is a spiritual album that has a chance to gain attention from the masses — and that's no small accomplishment.

"Take My Hand" opens the album by offering a mere hint at what's to come. Harper begins with lead vocal duties as the three 70-something singing members of the Blind Boys — Clarence Fountain, Jimmy Carter and George Scott — provide harmonized backup. But after establishing a mid-tempo groove built upon subtly played keyboards, wah-wah distorted electric guitar and the Blind Boys' reverberating vocals, Harper defers to his elders.

Fountain, the Blind Boys' leader, takes the song home, but not before seemingly imparting his approval on Harper to lead his group the rest of the way — "I wanna walk with ya/ I wanna talk with ya/ Lead me on."

The album's next track, "Wicked Man," finds Harper getting comfortable in the presence of legends. The joyful gospel-rock song soars thanks to Harpers' zealous vocal delivery and two wild solos.

He also steps out entirely on his own on "Where Could I Go" — a personal heaven-bound plea — "They say freedom is/ Just a place to hide/ Now I'm coming to you/ With my arms open wide." The Blind Boys remain respectfully silent for the song's duration. Perhaps they can sense the pain in Harper's voice needs no complement.

But Harper and the Blind Boys begin to fade a bit beginning with "Church House Steps." It's a solid song, even if it does sound too much like "Wicked Man," but Harper's delivery seems hurried and the Blind Boys aren't able to adjust.

The remainder of Light offers mixed results. None of the remaining tracks can be singled out as blights that would have been better left off the CD, but few rise to the level of the album's first three showstoppers.

The a cappella arrangement of "Mother Pray," the album's only traditional gospel song, is out of place on an album that does a fine overall job of pushing the genre forward. The album's title track, an otherwise charmingly sung ballad, would have been better utilized on a disc where the Blind Boys are the only attraction.

However, Harper and the Blind Boys work off one another perfectly on "Pictures of Jesus," allowing the soulful number to rise beyond the late-disc mediocrity to take its place as the album's best track. They also close the album successfully with "Church on Time," a rollicking toe-tapper that could raise any congregation into a religious fervor.

Light isn't a perfect album, but it offers listeners plenty to smile about. If there's one thing Harper and the Blind Boys have in common, it's their ability to leave listeners wanting more. Hopefully, this collaboration is a sign of more to come.

Grade: B