Tom Waits singing the blues classic, “John The Revelator?” Call that a perfect match of material and menacing growl. While Son House, among many others, was able to raise a storm of emotion and record a powerful version of that classic blues number, Waits' version on a new tribute to its composer Blind Willie Johnson is right up there with the best. It’s also a good reason to avail yourself of a copy of God Don’t Never Change, the new collection of tracks celebrating Johnson's music.

The final product of a process I wrote about in the April 2015 issue of Stereophile, this long-time comin’ tribute, the fruition of a Kickstarter campaign, has now been released on CD and LP by Chicago’s venerable Alligator Records. While most of the first generation of bluesmen are special characters, Johnson, a Texan who was deliberately blinded by his father when he caught young Willie’s mother going out with another man, is one who, like Robert Johnson, has a small body of work (30 recorded songs) that’s come to have an outsized influence. Johnson’s original songs like “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground,” and “It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” the last of which has been covered by everyone from Tom Jones and Van Morrison to the Grateful Dead and Willie Nelson, all seem to have a much more expansive world view and all-encompassing spirituality than the work of many early bluesman, who often confined their vision to whiskey and women.

The presence of Waits on two tracks—the other being “The Soul of a Man,”—who records all too infrequently and performs live even less, is a particularly good fit for this project, as both he and Johnson share the same gravel-voiced rumble that’s become Waits mode of singing since he quit the crooning that distinguishes his Elektra Records. Other performers here include Lucinda Williams (two tracks), Derek Truck & Susan Tedeschi, Blind Boys of Alabama, Rickie Lee Jones, Cowboy Junkies, Sinead O’Connor, Maria McKee, and Luther Dickinson & The Rising Star Fife & Drum Band.

Tribute records are often a fascinating mix of those who try, who put emotion and thought into their tracks, and those who turn in lukewarm efforts. I’ve always found the tracks that come off as half-assed to be a mystery. Tribute records are never about making money and you know that going in. So why then even participate, why go to the trouble, then not do yourself proud by turning in something that sounds tossed off? Really nothing here fits into that category. Some tracks like the strident performance of “Let Your Light Shine On Me” by Maria McKee, who’s most famous for her time in Lone Justice and their great 1985 self-titled debut album, are very clearly full of effort and imagination. Susan Tedeschi’s vocal on “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” is another standout. Sinead O’Connor’s stomping arrangement of “Trouble Will Soon Be Over” is innovative, even if she does sort of overdo the howling near the song's end. And Rickie Lee Jones' version of “Dark Is the Night, Cold is the Ground” is suitably doomy and dirge-like.

The sound here (at least on the CD) is good not great, but fairly consistent, which is the problem with a album recorded in as many studios as there are performers. The liner-note essay by my old friend, Texan Michael Corcoran is predictably great and the artwork here is pretty fabulous. Jeff Gaskill, whose baby this is, deserves kudos for shepherding together a class package.

dalethorn's picture

I think Sinead O'Connor's Lion and Cobra was probably the most powerful pop album recorded since Live At The Apollo by James Brown. O'Connor had a voice that she used a lot like Howlin' Wolf did, and which Mick Jagger approached on occasion, but never perfected.

volvic's picture

Some of those names are reason enough to give this a go. Thanks for sharing.