By Bob Marovich
The African American church is blessed with many pastors who can sing. I mean really sing.
Bishop Samuel R. Blakes is one of them.
Senior Pastor of New Orleans- and Baton Rouge-based New Home Ministries, Bishop Blakes possesses those classic gravelly, pulpit-worn gospel pipes that communicate an I’ve-been-there-so-I-know honesty. His voice, which runs the gamut from shout to meaty croon, is ideal for the material on his album, I Survived, a selection of neo-traditional songs filled with wooden-church wisdom.
Even the praise pieces, such as “He Is God” and “Yes I Do,” place gratitude in the context of God’s goodness. “God Wants to Hear From You,” the album’s high point and current single, is a deliciously old fashioned organ-and-piano church song. The lyrics are an encouraging pat on the shoulder. Blakes calls out the many ways God has bestowed favor on us, and all God wants is a “thank you.” Small price to pay for the blessings of life.
Indeed, most of the album’s lyrics are sympathetic and empathetic, calling to mind the gentle catharsis of an album from another New Orleans-based Bishop, Paul S. Morton Sr., whose post-Katrina Cry Your Last Tear contained the same weary but ever-hopeful ambience. On I Survived, Morton joins Blakes for “Scars,” a churchy song of survival on which he references their shared hurricane experience. Storm clouds may gather but, as Blakes notes a couple of times during the CD, “what we’re going through is not where we’re going to.”
Blakes drops samples of live sermons throughout the album, mostly during the first half, which employs a crackly ‘70s soul vibe beneath songs of reassurance, encouragement, and hope. The album’s only imperfections are the unnecessary reprises of “You’re Not Alone” and “Get Over It;” they do not add any value to the tracks they modify.
Producer Pharis Evans Jr., of the famous Evans Family (Clay, Pharis, LouDella) of Chicago, does a superb job capturing an old school vibe with new school elements.
At a time when vertical praise songs are the most popular commercially, I Survived is a much-needed reminder that gospel music can, and more often should, be a salve that soothes the wounded heart. The songs on this lovely album, full of feeling and as leisurely as a late summer day in the Deep South, are an aural hug of compassion for those who can’t always feel the healing from getting their praise on.
Four of Five Stars
Picks: “Scars,” “God Wants to Hear From You.”