As a musical concept, Marc Cohn teaming up with the Blind Boys of Alabama makes perfect sense: a guy with a soulful tenor whose most famous song features a choir and a virtual baptism paired with an iconic gospel group whose live shows get people on their feet.
Cohn and his collaborators make no secret of the deeper bridge they’ve made when they perform together. The devout Christians from the Deep South have found common ground with a Jewish guy from Ohio.
“I’ve always had an almost inexplicable but a very deep love for gospel music ever since I was a kid, so getting to tour with the Blind Boys and now collaborate on a record has just brought my love for gospel music full circle,” Cohn said Wednesday during an interview from New York.
Cohn will be leading a trio when he performs today at Tupelo Music Hall in Derry. But his latest album, released in August, features the Blind Boys of Alabama on several live recordings and a few new recordings including the title track, “Work to Do,” a ballad Cohn wrote with the Blind Boys in mind.
The song is about overcoming the loss of love and loved ones, and the lessons learned that come with age.
“I actually envisioned Jimmy Carter, the oldest member of the group and one of the original members ... It was really a song I imagined him singing,” said Cohn, 60. “But as it turns out, there are certain things those guys are comfortable singing melodically, lyrically, and other things they’re not. So it just worked out that I ended up being the lead vocalist on it.”
Cohn and the Blind Boys have performed together dozens of times since the group first appeared with him to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Cohn’s platinum-selling 1991 debut album a few years ago. Touring with them has helped Cohn weather the rigors of the road.
“It can be a slog sometimes. If I am feeling down and tired myself, I look over at Jimmy — who’s 88 years old and blind — and he’s doing everything expected of him. What have I got to complain about?” Cohn said. “It puts a lot of things in perspective, and it’s brought a lot of joy to my experience of live performance. I’ve really loved playing live more than ever anyway, but this experience of doing with shows with them has been absolutely joyous.”
“Work to Do” features a live performance of Cohn and the Blind Boys performing “Walking in Memphis,” the song that earned Cohn a Grammy and became his signature hit. The piano ballad’s most famous line is where the narrator of the song experiences a spiritual awakening while singing on stage with a female gospel singer.
Now Cohn reaches that same place with the Blind Boys.
“It brought such freshness to me. And I felt like, “Ah, this is where this song was meant to end up, right in the hands of the Blind Boys of Alabama.” It brought home the whole song,” Cohn said.
“It’s that synergy in the last line, ‘Are you a Christian, child? Ma’am, I am tonight.’ That was brought to life by the Blind Boys. Because as a Jewish kid from Cleveland, as soon as I’m singing that song with them, yeah, I’m a Christian, for the night.”
Both Cohn and the Blind Boys have lines they won’t cross when it comes to lyrics, based on their respective faiths. But they find a way around the differences. “The Baby King,” one of the newly-penned songs on “Work to Do,” could pass for a sacred Christmas song, but Cohn said it was inspired by the birth of his son, Max, now a 28-year-old comedy writer who recently worked on an episode of “The Simpsons.” (Cohn’s daughter, Emily, 25, is a director whose first feature, “CRSHD,” recently debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival.)
“I purposely wrote that song so that people in the faith would relate to it, but for me that’s a song about my first child, who took over the entire house when he was born,” Cohn said. “To me, it’s not a spiritual song, but I love that it can be.”
At Tupelo Music Hall, Cohn will be backed by percussionist Joe Bonadio, who Cohn said plays almost anything that makes a noise: “If he finds a hubcap in the alley after a show, it might be in the show the next night.”
The trio is rounded out by keyboard player Glenn Patscha: “He has a very churchy vibe to his playing, which is important in a lot of my songs.”
Together they find new ways to frame Cohn’s songs.
“The one thing I am dead set against is hearing live musicians play a concert that sounds just like the record because there’s nothing new being brought to the songs,” Cohn said. “We’re always looking to bring something new to the music to keep us interested. And in this trio, it’s kind of easy to do.”