Blind Boys testify to the gospel of the season
It was with more than six decades of performance history and experience behind him that Jimmy Carter, founding member of Blind Boys of Alabama, addressed the audience just after stepping on stage at the Berklee Performance Center Saturday night. “We don’t like to sing to a conservative crowd,’’ he declared, and people were all too happy to oblige. Hooting, whistling, and feel-good shouts all punctuated the songs. So did participatory clapping — not on the standard ones and threes favored by non-musicians, but on the correct gospel off-beats. Anybody curious about the power of gospel music done right needed only look to that.
The occasion was officially designated a Christmas concert, though the Blind Boys didn’t push that particular theme too hard. Of the evening’s five holiday songs, only three were long-established standards. But Ben Moore’s delivery on a deliberate “Silent Night’’ transformed a song everyone’s heard thousands of times, while “Go Tell It on the Mountain’’ became a jazzy, minor-key organ blues.
If the concert wasn’t predominantly Christmassy, it was certainly spiritual enough to capture the thrust of the season. “Free at Last’’ was driven by a New Orleans funk groove and a cockeyed drumbeat as lopsided as an unbalanced load of laundry. Everybody took a verse on “People Get Ready,’’ with guitarist Joey Williams briefly showing off a lusciously creamy falsetto before fading back into the harmonies.
The main attraction, though, was the trio who remained seated front and center until it came time to step forward, grab the microphone and rattle the rafters. Joining Carter and Moore was Bishop Billy Bowers, who sang with a fiery, mesmerizing baritone growl. When all three harmonized, they hit a sweet spot of low, heavy vibrato that made a beeline straight for the pit of a listener’s chest.
The Blind Boys demonstrated a bit of old-school showmanship, especially during the rousing gospel rave-up “Look Where He Brought Me From,’’ where Williams kept exaggeratedly coaxing the three singers back into their chairs and they kept defying him to rise to their feet again. Carter soon found his way onto the floor to mingle with the crowd for several minutes as the song kept on.
But the most striking moment was when they sang “Amazing Grace’’ as the band played “House of The Rising Sun.’’ The dissonance between the two songs — one the tale of a soul lost, another of a soul found — was disorienting at first, but the combination quickly started making an unexpected sort of sense. At the end, Carter held a long, wavering note for what seemed like forever. Then he testified and did it all over again.
Marc Hirsh can be reached at email@example.com.