Ben Bowen King & the Sidewalk Saints

Ben Bowen King & the Sidewalk Saints
Roots Gospel Music

Talking Taco Music - TT-153D

By R. Avant-Mier
May 2007

Instrumental music is usually something people can listen to while doing something else. In my case, I listen to instrumental music while doing things around the house.

But in the case of Sidewalk Saints, I found myself having to stop to listen. Something about this music makes you stop and pay attention. Maybe it’s the deep gospel moans, or maybe it’s the sounds of spoons and tambourines, of rub boards and hide-covered drums, and of suitcases and whatever other handy instruments that turn up.

Or maybe it’s just Ben Bowen King’s slide-resonator guitar mastery. Whatever it is, this is a disc that makes one stop and listen.

Sidewalk Saints is a fresh take on classic North-American roots gospel music. While people might file this release under “Americana,” it is worth noting that this is the sound of North -Americana, the specific sound of North-American music. In other words, this is a time capsule to the early days of blues, gospel and Appalachian balladry before those became Latin-ized and altogether fashioned rock ‘n’ roll.

As a roots-music homage with a religious-spiritual timbre, Sidewalk Saints is evidence of the intercultural union of white European-American music with black African-American music in the 1920s and 1930s.

Listeners will instantly recognize gospel standards such as “Amazing Grace,” “Old Time Religion,” “Swing Low, Swing Chariot” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” And listeners will just as easily start tapping their toes, clapping their hands, and even singing the words if they can remember them.

And for blues enthusiasts who need the requisite references to Satan and evil, there’s “Satan-Your Evil Empire Will Fall Someday,” with a dreary and ominous tone, and “Preacher’s Hell Bound Train,” which actually suggests the chug-a-lug sound of a moving train.

While King’s Texas banjo-style guitar picking is naturally prominent throughout, Covita Moroney’s gospel-style moans on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “In The Sweet By & By” and others are sure to capture one’s attention and have one humming along. Likewise, to hear hand-clapping to the rhythm, one is just as likely to start clapping along without even realizing it.

As the story goes, “sidewalk saints” were the blues guitarists who played these gospel tunes on sidewalks and street corners throughout the South in ways that gave their instruments the ability to “sing” popular gospel tunes in a call-and-response style. In this nod to that bygone era, King uses a picking style that came to Texas from Tennessee and the Carolinas, when the banjo was the prominent instrument among early black and white settlers. The resonator/slide guitar gives King the ability to employ the Texas banjo style as well as the deftness to mimic the human voice in all of its glory.

The outcome, of course, is a definitive gospel flavor, and an obvious religious and spiritual feel. But make no mistake. This heavily gospel-inflected music isn’t just for people who love Jesus. Nor is this religiously-tinged music just for people who love God. This is uplifting and spiritual music for people who just love music.

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