Clarence Fountain, Sam Butler and the Boys: Stepping Up and Stepping Out (One World/Tyscot)

At 80, Clarence Fountain, founder and lead vocalist of the Blind Boys of Alabama, has some challenges. He recently abandoned the singing group he formed in 1939 at the Talladega Institute for the Deaf and Blind, and now finds himself undergoing dialysis several times a week. Like a true artist, though, Fountain plays the cards dealt to him and has started over, this time with a new band and album.

He has help from friends like ex-Blind Boys guitarist Sam Butler, Solomon Burke (executive producer, and whose One World label co-released the album) and Steely Dan mastermind Donald Fagen (who penned the liner notes and plays melodica on one track, the spare and atmospheric "The Birth of Jesus").

Stepping Up and Stepping Out stands as an exceptional gospel and soul release that you can spin anytime, anywhere—at a family barbecue, in your car on the way to work, at home alone. Due to Fountain's advanced age, it's no surprise that Butler handles the lion's share of singing. Yet even when frail-voiced Fountain steps into the spotlight for gospel classics like "Me and Jesus" and "Stand by Me," there's a great band backing him, with sparkling Hammond organ runs by Chris "Hambone" Cameron and tasteful production courtesy of Jim Tullio.

The buoyant, quasi-reggae groove of "I Shall Not Be Moved" should not be missed. Neither should this entire CD.

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