However you feel about Dan Zanes' music, it's hard to say that he hasn't managed to follow his muse in his career as family troubadour. Interspersed with excellent albums designed for the whole family, he recorded excellent albums covering songs from Carl Sandburg's American Songbag and sea tunes. And then he recorded an entire album in Spanish.
Really, the fact that Zanes' latest album is a bunch of gospel and gospel-inspired tunes with the slightly ponderous title The Welcome Table: Songs of Inspiration, Mystery, and Good Times should come as no surprise to any long-term listener of Zanes' music. The biggest risk Zanes takes in recording this album is alienating a portion of his audience who will be disinterested in the Christian worldview.
Or, rather, that's how it might appear to someone who hasn't heard the album. Because if there's one constant thread running through all of Zanes' albums it's a sense of tolerance and equality, and this album is no different. Yes, it's an album that mentions big-G God several repeatedly. And just as Nueva York! may not have been as easy for a listener to "get" if they didn't speak Spanish, if a listener doesn't speak the particular language of the gospel songs, they may find this album more difficult to grasp. (I personally had that problem with Nueva but don't really with this album.) But it's also an album that includes a Jewish song, readings of biblical passages in foreign languages, and several songs that don't mention a higher power at all. It is, in short, a Dan Zanes gospel album in every sense of the phrase.
There are, as best I can tell, 5 previously-released songs here including the title track with the Blind Boys of Alabama, leaving 10 new songs for your listening pleasure. Lots of traditional gospel tunes reworked in Zanes' Americana/folk/rock style, with particular highlights being "Jesus on the Mainline," "Up Above My Head," and "Home In That Rock." I also really liked the Spanish hymn "Himno Guadalupano." They're all lots of fun -- mostly "good times" with only a little bit of "mystery" thrown in. But I'd be remiss if I didn't mention my favorite track here, the album closer "We've Been Down This Road Before," a song about working together through tough times that Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger would be proud to have written.
Once again, a Dan Zanes album makes a mockery of my insistence of putting age ranges on album reviews, but I think kids ages 5 and up will more easily grasp the social justice (or spiritual) messages here. You can listen to the songs at Zanes' page here. I should also note that the album is a benefit for the New Sanctuary Movement, an organization which "protects immigration workers and families from unjust deportation."
Zanes' passion in his music has always been community -- our "common welfare as human beings," as Zanes puts it in his liner notes. The Welcome Table is another solid album in his musical argument in favor of community and equality. Even if you're not sure the album is for you, if you're a Dan Zanes fan, you're going to find it worth your time. Definitely recommended.