For many years Michael Chandler has been on a journey – sure, you can go ahead and call it a crusade – to a place where he could make an album like Have You Heard About The World? A gospel record with indie pedigree, country-soul undercurrents, and a take-responsibility message. A gospel record on which Delta-church exuberance trumps downtown cool. A gospel record with, well, God in and amongst the grooves.
The first steps were taken in Chandler’s longstanding New York City outfit the Raunch Hands, a raucous ensemble that would surround a James Brown song with surf music and ’50s obscurities, then further detour into R&B originals and pure country. The Raunch Hands recorded “What’s The Matter Now?” (a traditional song put on the map by the Swan Silvertones and also covered, post-Raunch Hands, by the Oblivians), and onstage they’d play other gospel tunes. But Chandler would tend to hedge his bets, and, true to the band’s name, they’d raunch things up a bit.
“I always wondered how to put the gospel music into what we were doing in the Raunch Hands, how to make it salable,” he offers. “We did a lot of gospel numbers and changed the lyrics to be something a little unsavory. But I came around to the fact that to do gospel music the way it’s meant to be, you’ve got to leave God in it.”
Enter the Lost Crusaders, and a gradual, even hard-fought, change in mindset for Chandler. “When I listen to my favorite gospel artists, the ones who are influential to me, for the longest time I was listening for, ‘How does he sing this? How does the drummer play this? What makes the music be this and that?’” says Chandler. “And when I would hear them say, ‘I’m not ashamed of the way I feel about God; I’m unashamed, and I’ll stand up in front of everybody and proclaim it’ – I said, ‘Wow, could I do that?’ That’s something I really had to overcome.”
Among other things, then, you can call Have You Heard About The World? the sound of overcoming. When Chandler rewrites a standard these days, such as the jubilation-sax-driven “Downward Road,” the holy message remains intact. And the originals, the majority team-written by Chandler and fellow Crusaders Brian McBride and Joey Valentine, honor both spirit and Spirit as they careen between classic sentiments and modern settings. For instance, “Whose Name Will I Call?” has the lyrical feel of a salvation song that people have been singing for a century, while its immediate neighbor on the record, “Where Did I Go?”, finds the saved protagonist casting aside credit cards along with pills and liquor to earn passage on the heaven-bound express.
When crafting the music for Have You Heard About The World?, Chandler took inspiration from groups such as the Swan Silvertones and the Blind Boys of Alabama, but he leaned more heavily on Ray Charles and Jerry Lee Lewis and their ability to take the gospel form and mold it into rhythm & blues and rock ‘n’ roll. The results provide a lesson in how to blur genres while somehow maintaining focus.
Chandler had only ever heard the trad title track presented a cappella, so he took the opportunity to create a full-band arrangement – twice, as a matter of fact. One version kick-starts the record in a rush of handclaps and harmonies; the second is a country take featuring duet vocals from Laura Cantrell, lap steel from Matt Verta-Ray, and piano from Hans Chew that splits the difference between Methodist hymn book and saloon. (“A ’70s throwback if there ever was one,” Chandler says of the reprise.) Those same guests turn a cover of “Too Late”, from husband-and-wife gospel duo the Consolers, into triumphant country-soul. One more borrowed song, Keith Carradine’s Nashville singalong “It Don’t Worry Me”, makes a fitting closer in both theme and vibe, its eleven-strong gang vocals on the chorus perfectly encapsulating the album’s congregational nature.
“One of the things I’m best at is putting people together in the right place,” Chandler says when discussing the Lost Crusaders’ sprawling lineup. “As a singer, I wonder how talented I actually am. But when it comes to putting people in the same room who are gonna do good things together, I think that’s one of my strengths.”
In this case, the room was a recording studio, and in Chandler’s vivid recounting of the whirlwind process, the front door might well have revolved: “Someone would come in, do something he hadn’t even rehearsed. As he’s walking out, the next guy’s walking in asking, ‘OK, which horn do I use?’ And he’s done, and someone else is walking in with a pair of maracas.”
Chandler is quick to praise all those involved in the recording, and the subsequent handful of shows the Lost Crusaders have done. In addition to the players mentioned above, the roster includes primary instigator Buffi Aguero of Atlanta’s Tiger! Tiger!, master of a thousand guitar licks Johnny Vignault, Raunch Hand survivor Mike Edison, saxophonist Steve Greenfield, and producer Dean Rispler. Jon Spencer and the Fleshtones’ Keith Streng have earned special-guest status. And if there’s a secret weapon on the record, it’s Jermone Jackson, organist for Harlem’s Kelly Temple Church of God in Christ – a guy brought into the fold via that most 21st-century of recruitment tools, Craigslist.
Keeping the Lost Crusaders alive while juggling schedules – each member, it seems, has at least two other musical affiliations – and coming to terms with rehearsing only three hours in a good week is a challenge. In fact, the whole affair was originally envisioned as a one-off, but an interesting thing happened: Folks remained committed. In that regard, just as in other key aspects, the project has defined itself, and Chandler acknowledges he is not the chief navigator of his own journey. “When I think I have control over it, it makes its own decision,” he says. “People tell me that’s beautiful art.”
Have You Heard About The World? was released on Spain’s Everlasting Records, making physical copies a little tough to come by. Get Hip Recordings has some has copies, and it’s also available digitally via eMusic, iTunes and Rhapsody. Chandler is also selling them directly via mail-order for $12.99 (shipping included) at the following address:
The Lost Crusaders
c/o Michael Chandler
302A West 12th St. #311
New York, NY 10014-6025