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All aboard the Hallelujah Train
A one-of-a-kind celebration of gospel music

If unique collaborations between musicians of different genres are the heart and soul of the Savannah Music Festival, it's shows like the Hallelujah Train that form its sturdy musculature.

Jazz, R&B and rock drummer Brian Blade, and members of his Fellowship Band, are at the heart of the Hallelujah Train, making a one-off stop at historic First African Baptist Church March 31.

On guitars are Daniel Lanois, the legendary producer whose work with U2, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Peter Gabriel and Emmylou Harris are among the most stunning (and beloved) in each artist's catalogue; Buddy Miller, the Nashville singer/songwriter who's become an indispensable creative sidekick to the likes of Harris, Gillian Welch, Steve Earle and others, and was most recently a part of Robert Plant's Band of Joy; and pedal steel prophet Greg Liesz, a frequent (and potent) collaborator with Bill Frisell, Matthew Sweet and others.

Brian's brother, Brady Blade Jr., is also a noted drummer, and he's part of the Hallelujah band, too. His resume includes lengthy tenures in Harris' band Spyboy (with Miller and Lanois), and tours with Dave Mathews and Steve Earle.

But those guys are supporting players in the one-of-a-kind assemblage that is the Hallelujah Train.

It's a full-tilt, can-I-get-an-amen gospel music show, starring Pastor Brady Blade Sr., and the Zion Baptist Church mass choir from southern Louisiana.

We spoke with Brian Blade this week. Best let him explain everything.

Tell me about your father.

Brian Blade: Aside from being a great singer, my father has been a pastor in Shreveport. La., at the Zion Baptist Church for 51 years. Both my brother and myself started playing drums in church there. He just always instilled a sort of steadfast mission walk in life, as an example, as a man; it was really inspiring. Even moreso as I get a little older. So it's just great to be able to share this part of his gift, musically, with some of our other friends.

Is he preaching as well, or just singing with the choir and the band?

Brian Blade: He's just singing. The Hallelujah Train is completely a musical experience. It is the gospel, but it won't be a service or any preaching. Unless you consider songs do that!

I should back up for a minute. The Hallelujah Train was actually a TV show that served as a kind of public service show from our hometown of Shreveport back in the ‘70s. It almost ran for a decade. My father started it, and it featured these quartets and choirs and gospel groups from around our area.

Coming on every Sunday morning, all those years, on the local affiliate of CBS there, they never kept any tapes of the show! It broke my heart to realize that. So I just thought it would be great to keep that name, and to revive it in this way. In the living moment. And it speaks, obviously, to the history of his ideas and his work in life. It's just an extension of that.

If I may crawl out on a tenuous limb here, isn't it also an extension - literally - of spreading the gospel? Taking it on the road?

Brian Blade: Exactly. I mean, my father would go on revivals a lot when I was growing up, Savannah being one of those places. So it's kind of great to re-visit the city itself. My father loves to have the joy of these experiences come out, and reach people. He's all about it.

But your father has a pretty steady day job. How were you able to talk him into going on tour?

Brian Blade: (Laughing). It isn't a tour. We've been able to do a couple of these special concerts, thankfully. Rob Gibson there at the Savannah Music Festival heard about the project, and he was interested to have us. It's great to be able to come into a place like the First African Baptist Church, with such a history, a sort of sacred space.

Besides Pastor Blade and the choir, how is this different from your Fellowship Band?

Brian Blade: First of all, I'm thankful to my friends for making the time to do it, and for having the opportunity come from Rob Gibson.

The Fellowship Band is, I guess, jazz-based. It's saxophone and piano, bass and drums. This allows us the opportunity to say "OK, here's this music, and also here's this music." Which really, to me, is very connected. Not just because I'm a part of both, but I don't know, I just feel like there's a singular vibration in it. Even though they're somewhat different experiences.

John Cowherd is playing piano in both projects, and Chris Thomas is playing bass in both projects. My brother and I both play drums in the Hallelujah Train - that's great, because it takes it back to the roots of us starting to play in church.

Lanois is a pretty busy guy, too. How did you get him to do his project?

Brian Blade: We've been friends for so long, ever since we met in New Orleans back in the early ‘90s. He's been such a deep inspiration, and a confidante in so many ways. He's such a music man, and he loves my father's gift. He just believes in great gifts, and people who work hard, and how that work manifests as the art. It's great that he wants to be a part of that energy, as does Buddy Miller and Greg Liesz

These are people not only that I trust and feel a great kinship with, man I'm a fan as well! It's terrific when all those things line up, and you can continue to make music with each other and know that it's not about anything other than that shared experience.

Savannah Music Festival

The Hallelujah Train

At 8 p.m. March 31/First African Baptist Church

The Fellowship Band

At 6:15 and 9 p.m. March 29/Morris Center with Jon Faddis Trio