Sam Butler & the Boys / Clarence Fountain

Stepping Up & Stepping Out

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As a founding and former member of the legendary Blind Boys of Alabama, Clarence Fountain has enjoyed a 70-year career as a gospel singer, and amazingly, he still sings with skill and verve. On Stepping Up & Stepping Out, where Fountain shares billing with another former member of the Blind Boys, Sam Butler (no stranger to the secular side of things, having worked with Keith Richards, among others), Fountain has delivered what might be his most accessible and mainstream album yet. It's no secret that classic soul always derived its spirit and energy straight from gospel, with the two streams separated only by the nature of their themes, and there have been many singers (Sam Cooke and Al Green come immediately to mind) who've sung successfully in both genres without really changing the approach (only the lyrics), but generally it's all one or the other, either gospel or soul. What Fountain and Butler do on this very impressive release is actually combine the two, and it makes for an album of startling emotional balance. Every track has a powerful resonance, whether it leans to the gospel side or secular side of the great divide. There's so much to like here, but the beautiful "Down to the River," the Curtis Mayfield-like "It's a Different World" (which features a guest spot from Donald Fagen on melodica), and the bluesy, funky "Don't Let the Devil Ride" are clear highlights. It's unusual to hear a project where gospel and soul blend as artfully together as this, which makes Stepping Up & Stepping Out a rare and special treasure.

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