Under the first clear sky for days, Ara Jansen feels moved, roused and blessed by the gospel mix of The Blind Boys of Alabama.
Review: Perth Festival, ‘The Blind Boys of Alabama’ ·
Chevron Lighthouse, 29 February 2020 ·
Review by Ara Jansen ·
Someone upstairs might well have been smiling down on this sold-out crowd after a week of bumpy weather. Not only was the sky clear and the stars twinkling, but the group on stage were sending homage and blessings upwards as much as they were sending them out to the audience. They even sang us a song called “Uncloudy Day”.
The Blind Boys of Alabama have the distinction of being probably one of the world’s oldest musical groups: they started in 1939. Since then, the gospel group’s line-up – all or nearly all of them blind or visually impaired – has aged with them, and the last original performing member, Jimmy Carter (most likely in his 80s), continues to lead them in musical praise.
What hasn’t changed is the Blind Boys’ dedication to singing classic gospel and their willingness to embrace modern music, successfully mixing the two. They are a versatile and ambitious group who can collaborate with artists as varied as Ben Harper, The Oak Ridge Boys, Taj Mahal and Marc Cohen.
To welcome us to their soulful church-for-the-night, Carter said he hoped we’d feel better when we left than when we arrived. And if the yelling, hooting, clapping and stomping were anything to go by, he made good on his word.
The five jumped right in with the jaunty and celebratory “Walk in Jerusalem (Just Like John)”, followed by “People Get Ready” and then a bass and drum-heavy “Spirit in the Sky”.
The dapper gents were dressed in red single-button jackets and bow ties, with their trademark sunglasses. Each member stood and sat as he took the lead on songs, with harmonious support from the others.
In a smartly curated and somewhat classic set, they sang through a wonderful mix of traditional sounds, storytelling and innovation, as evidenced by a clever reimagining of “Amazing Grace” set to the ominous guitar lines of “House of the Rising Sun”.
The most moving moment was the personal and autobiographical number, “Almost Home”, from the 2017 album of the same name. It tells of the early years and how, as boys, they “have come a long, long way from Alabama” after putting their faith in God.
In the middle of the set, they celebrated songs from film and television, including the swinging “Way Down the Hole” from The Wire, the honky-tonk piano of “Uncloudy Day”, and the soulful cut of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Nobody’s Fault but Mine”.
The prayer-like “God Knows Everything” offered a moment of quiet and intimate reflection as well as a chance to soak in the voices before the call to march came with “Soldier in the Army of the Lord”, lifting the collective energy once more.
The encore began with a steadfast “I Shall Not Be Moved” and closed on an exultant note, with a driving cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”, complete with whirling Hammond and a few altered lyrics to inject some gospel, Blind Boys style.
Had there been a roof to be raised, this was the rousing kind of show to do it. If there were souls to be saved, perhaps these songs of hope and faith helped.
Pictured top: The Blind Boys of Alabama in Perth. Photo: Jessica Wyld.
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