The Blind Boys of Alabama. At the Marjorie Luke Theatre, Thursday, December 21, 2006.
Reviewed by Charles Donelan
Entering the theater in their trademark hand-on-shoulder formation, the Blind Boys of Alabama wore tuxedos with festive red bowties. But once the singing began, those ties got loosened pretty quickly — there’s nothing uptight or restrictive about the Blind Boys’ version of gospel. It’s as direct and visceral as music can get, as rough in its own way as hard blues or heavy rock, with a playfulness and of course an inspirational message. They started off with some non-Christmas material of the clap-stomp-shout variety, and moved on to a pair of short Christmas sets framing a medley of their recent Grammy-winning singles.
How many groups have so many Grammys that they need to do the winners as a medley? The Blind Boys have four consecutive wins since 2002 in the best traditional gospel album category, and it’s easy to see why. They’ve been taking pop songs like “Spirit in the Sky” and juicing them up to bring down the house in a way that is truly a marvel. While purists may miss the more traditional compositions of the group’s middle and early periods, they shouldn’t be too hard on this late flowering of their talent as arrangers.
Clarence Fountain and company’s aggressive claiming of the pop music that scandalized their world so many years ago by stealing sacred shouts for blues may be hard gospel’s ultimate redemption. It certainly works live, as anyone who heard them here will attest. And the influence is running both ways — their rendition of “Amazing Grace” has a gothic tinge that recalls “House of the Rising Sun.” The Christmas songs were appropriately joyful and ebullient. “Silent Night” and “White Christmas” both got proper workouts, but the less well-known “The Last Month of the Year” was also a real showstopper — syncopated recitation of the months of the year made a jazzy complement to the song’s driving blue-toned countermelody.
No Blind Boys show would be complete without some theatrics, and there were plenty to wind up this concert. One singer roared while swinging his big hips in a wide circle; another bounced on his toes and dipped his microphone in benediction over the excited crowd. When it came time to leave, the Blind Boys repeatedly broke free of their handlers to rise again. Hallelujah for that.