Various Artists, “God Don’t Never Change — The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson” (Alligator Records)
Tom Waits and Lucinda Williams contribute two songs each to “God Don’t Never Change — The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson,” a stirring homage to the Texas gospel singer who last recorded in 1930.
Johnson sang only religious songs among the 30 sides that survive him, but his slide guitar and resonant vocals motivated rockers from Eric Clapton to the Grateful Dead.
The versions here preserve his deep spirituality, with the Cowboy Junkies, Sinead O’Connor, the Blind Boys of Alabama and Maria McKee also among those ably keeping the faith.
Waits is intense but relatively subdued on “The Soul of a Man,” the opener which draws the listener closer to his grasp. When he returns eight songs later with “John the Revelator,” he forcefully provides both call and response, leaving no room for faintheartedness. That he relies on Son House’s version of the lyrics instead of Johnson’s seems fitting in a tribute to a man about whom so little is known.
Johnson, whose voice could veer from a warm tenor to a false, growling bass, even leads the chorus of the Cowboy Junkies’ take on “Jesus Is Coming Soon” via a well-adapted sample, the group seamlessly bridging the nearly 90 years between the two recordings.
Producer Jeffrey Gaskill’s able guidance has resulted in 11 stirring renditions which replicate the soul of the songs not just the sounds.