CD Review: “Rock of Ages” (Blackwood Brothers)

Rock of Ages - Blackwood BrothersAbout a year or two ago, Jimmy Blackwood (James Blackwood’s son) brought the Blackwood Brothers Quartet name back to Southern Gospel. James Blackwood sings lead for the quartet, Wayne Little sings tenor, Brad White sings plays piano and sings baritone, and Randy Byrd sings the bass part.

I had the opportunity to see them in concert last year. After the concert, I noticed that they didn’t have any CDs on their record table that featured the current group. They had a pre-release edition of an upcoming live concert DVD with the current group, and CD compilations featuring previous Blackwood Brothers Quartet lineups.

A few months after I saw them, they finally finished the first CD featuring the new version of the group. This CD, Rock of Ages: Hymns of the Faith, is a table project, not issued by any label.

This is a project of hymns. There isn’t a single up-tempo song on the project, but that is not entirely surprising, given that hymns are mostly slow songs.
On to the songs:

  • “Rock of Ages.” This acapella rendition features solos from Brad White, Randy Byrd, and James Blackwood, each of whom sing at most a half verse. Starting the project with an acapella song is a nice touch; projects that start off with their best song tend to capture the listener’s attention but leave the listener disappointed with the rest of the project. However, most everyone who purchases this project is pretty sure to listen through to the end, and so the technique of building to the end, where the best songs are placed on this project, works well here.
  • “Amazing Grace.” This rendition features Jimmy Blackwood. It’s been said before, but now that his voice has fully matured, he sounds so much like his father that some people find it difficult to tell their voices apart. (If you’ve only heard his voice on ’70s Blackwood Brothers LPs, you might not realize how much his voice has grown to sound like his father’s.)
  • “God Leads Us Along.” This song is one of the highlights of the project. Jimmy Blackwood, Randy Byrd, and Wayne Little all have solos on the song. Byrd’s solo on this song–even though it is again only a half verse–is one of the case studies I’ll cite to illustrate my opinion that Byrd is one of the finest vocalists on the road today.
  • “He Hideth My Soul” features a fine solo performance by tenor Wayne Little. Little’s voice sounds different on recording than it did live, and has an interesting quality and dimension to it in the studio that wasn’t quite captured in the live setting.
  • “I am Thine, O Lord” features a solo from Brad White.
  • “In the Garden” has no solo. But on the second verse, Wayne and Jimmy sing the first two lines together (with Wayne carrying the melody) and Brad and Randy sing the last two lines together (with Randy carrying the melody).
  • “To God Be the Glory” features a solo from each member on one line of the second verse. While I typically enjoy entire-verse solos more than one-line solos, this arrangement utilized single-line solos better than any other I’ve heard recently. The build up to the tenor hitting the high note at the end worked well. It was slightly odd that the tempo was slowed at that point for a transposition, rather than keeping the musical energy of the moment by sustaining the tempo. But the arrangement is nonetheless one of the most interesting and thought-provoking arrangements on the project. (This is just a minor quibble, and almost not even worthy of mention, but some members appear to sing “hath done” while at least one other appears to sing “has done,” particularly at the end of the first chorus.)
  • “It is Well With My Soul” features Jimmy Blackwood.
  • “Old Rugged Cross” features solos from Brad White (on a complete verse) and Randy Byrd (on a half verse). This is one of the nicest arrangements of the song that I have heard.
  • “More About Jesus” features Randy Byrd, finally on a complete verse. Jimmy Blackwood and Wayne Little are each featured later in the song, as it builds up to a big finish which is impressive in that it is sustained by nothing more than four voices (without stacked vocals) and a piano.
  • “Oh, Say but I’m Glad” closes out the project. This, the first and only mid-tempo song on the project, features solos from Randy Byrd and Brad White. White ends his solo on a full-voice high A-flat, an impressive feat for a baritone.

The instrumentation is sparse. Brad White played piano on the tracks; Dean Haskins added other instrumentation. The only other instrument I noticed was an organ on a few tracks, but I may have missed something.

Most Southern Gospel fans also enjoy hymns, even if the hymn might not be uptempo or have a bass guitar backbeat. If you are one of those fans, you will enjoy these renditions. If you only like songs if they are uptempo and accompanied by a full band (and perhaps orchestra), this project may not be to your tastes.

The project doesn’t cover much new ground stylistically. But it does introduce a new group lineup which I think holds a great deal of promise. Randy Byrd is, in my opinion, one of the top 5 bass singers in Southern Gospel and Brad White is one of the top 5 pianists. Jimmy Blackwood is still in peak voice and Wayne Little is also at the top of his game. I can’t wait until they do a project of Southern Gospel songs, whether they do new songs or classics. But until then, this project gives you a good taste of what they can do.

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