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Rev. Johnny L. Jones - The Hurricane That Hit Atlanta

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Artist: Rev. Johnny L. Jones

Album: The Hurricane That Hit Atlanta

Label: Dust-to-Digital

Review date: Mar. 2, 2011

A more accurate credit for this collection might be Rev. Johnny L. Jones and Congregation, and that’s just not because this trawl through five decades of Jones’ Atlanta ministry features so many guest soloists. Rather, it’s because this set describes much more than just Jones’ formidable singing voice and loose, charismatic preaching. Interspersed with the rough-edged rock- and soul-infused versions of traditional hymns, spirituals and gospel tunes are advertisements read by Jones for local businesses (Need your gutters cleaned? Need a used range from the local thrift store?), conversations from his radio show with devout callers and, most intimately, a home recording featuring not Johnny, but Josephine Jones, as well as what must be a few church members. What emerges is a picture of the community that surrounds the Second Mount Olive Baptist Church, a vibrant, joyous group if this recorded evidence is anything to go by

These tapes were culled from Jones’ tape archive (which he plays from twice a month on WYZE Radio) and they are almost all shot through with a rarefied energy that couldn’t be found anywhere but a Baptist church on a Sunday. Many of the pieces are backed by a band (organ, guitar, bass and drums) or have Jones in call-and-response with just the audience. These are all room recordings from Jones’ church, so the sound is more holistic than hi-fi, with the mix out of whack in places and clarity lacking.

But there are more important things to be captured here than audio fidelity. There’s a communal spirit at work that a studio recording of Jones would miss completely. The atmosphere is completely spontaneous, with the garage-band riffing, shouts from the crowd, hand-clapping and backing choruses adding up to a glorious, and at times, raucous mess. In fact, Jones’ talents and energy would be wasted in a studio. He clearly feeds off his congregation, just as they certainly feed off him.

There’s something refreshing — not to mention inspiring — about Dust-to-Digital’s straightforwardness, simple presentation and attempt to reach into moments that would otherwise seem transitory. It presents a contemporary figure in that figure’s actual community, an approach that diverges sharply from the likes of, say, Mississippi Records, which mostly repackages already available, albeit often obscure, material in new packages under a loose theme that may or may not reflect the music’s original purpose.

Of course, the Mississippi approach has its appeal. The sign of truly powerful music is that it takes on many meanings in many times, and the label is certainly good at finding those kinds of pieces. But there’s always a feeling with Mississippi releases that someone somewhere has been slighted – spiritually if not financially.

There’s no such feeling with The Hurricane that Hit Atlanta. Sure, it has its shortcomings. Would dates of recordings been too much to ask, or even some background on the songs Jones and Co. interpret? But Steven Lance Ledbetter at Dust-to-Digital has handled this material with just the right touch. Too much historical data might have robbed this set of its vitality and power, made it a museum when its central figure and his community are still very much alive.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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