Sam Butler – Raise Your Hands! – Album Review

Sam Butler – Raise Your Hands!

Severn Records

12 tracks/47:13 minutes

When he was four, Sam Butler started his touring life, accompanying his father, Bishop Samuel Butler, Sr., on the road with The Blind Boys of Mississippi. That gospel group’s signature blues shouts combined the Saturday night rhythms of Mississippi juke joints and wailing blues guitar with the steady, undulating vocalizations of Sunday morning hymns.

Young Sam surely picked up the bright musical patterns weaving through the tensions between secular and sacred music, for he eventually developed his own signature riffs in his more than twenty-year tenure as guitarist for The Blind Boys of Alabama from 1972-1994. As a recognition of his blues and rock pedigree, Butler has joined forces in the past with Keith Richards, Donald Fagan of Steely Dan, and gospel great, and former Blind Boys leader, Clarence Fountain.

On his first solo album, Butler teams with producer Brian Brinkerhoff and joins forces with Sacred Steel player virtuoso Roosevelt Collier, drummer Marco Giovino, and bassist Viktor Krauss to deliver a scalding dose of redemption by covering spiritual songs by secular artists.

The album opens with a fiery, Jimi Hendrix-like version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Heaven’s Wall,” with Stax undertones. He delivers a true gospel call-and-response tune, encouraging listeners to “raise their hands” and bringing them to their feet to reach higher toward heaven with his staccato lead riffs on the bridge. By the end of this opening track, we’re washed and anointed and it feels as if we can’t go any higher. Butler channels Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” on the opening licks of Johnny Cash’s “Lead Me Father,” conducting us on a spiritual march driven by a stinging lead solo.

Butler takes Eric Clapton’s hauntingly beautiful “Presence of the Lord” to church as Collier’s yearning steel winds its way under and around Butler’s jazz riffs. Butler’s version carries us into a spiritual presence in a way that Clapton’s original, on his Blind Faith album, does not. Curtis Mayfield wrote several classic spirituals, including “People Get Ready” and his own version of an old hymn, “Wherever You Leadeth.” Butler channels Mayfield and Impressions’ vocalist Jerry Butler on this version; his crystalline guitar chords and riffs carry his gentle voice out of this world, inviting us to transcend the troubles of this world.

Butler’s growling vocals punctuate Tom Waits’ classic “Gospel Train.” The song captures the classic pull between the ways of the devil and the ways of God; Butler issues an invitation in a gravelly blues shout that insistently grabs us with its spare acoustic blues to climb on board the train before it leaves the station.

Collier’s throbbing steel opens “Sanctuary,” the Eliza Gilkyson-penned tune that closes the album with an evocative grace that drenches us in the pure honey of Butler’s voice and his resonator guitar on the song’s bridge. As much as the album rocks off to an unrelenting and insistent start, almost demanding acquiescence to praising God, this song closes the album with a quiet reminder that we can find God not only in the raucous crossroads but also in the quiet places where love hides, especially when we’ve been tried and torn by this world.

Smooth, stinging, and straight-ahead gospel blues deliver the promise of anointing and deliverance as well as faith, hope, and love on Butler’s transcendent debut, Raise Your Hands!

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