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The Blind Boys of Albama
The Jazz Cafe
Tues 18th July 2006

Review David Atkinson

I'd never noticed how many stairs there were at the Jazz Cafe before I saw the Blind Boys of Alabama led down and file on stage. Clarence Fountain's venerable gospel group took them all in their stride though, as they have with pretty much everything else in their years on the road.

Sporting orange suits and the customary shades, Fountain and Bishop Billy Powers were seated centre stage. Unfortunately they were one Blind Boy down; we were told in an engaging preamble to show-opener Good Enough For Me that vocalist Jimmy Carter was at home 'surviving' a bout of ill health. That said, Ricky McKinnie's steady drumming, aided by an acutely aware and able band, steered the enthusiastic crowd through the righteous Atom Bomb and Spirit In The Sky, and the delightful Nat 'King' Cole song Looking Back.

I was familiar with the Blind Boy's rich, trademark harmonies from record but hearing it live was something else. It's such a stirring, joyful noise - it made the hairs on my neck stand up and rattled the drinks on the bar. It's a sound that's won them numerous Grammy's and Grammy nominations late in their career after years on the gospel circuit. Now they enjoy crossover success but without really watering down their religiousness. And why should they? They seem happy to sing for whoever will listen, secular or spiritual - as Clarence Fountain said, "We didn't come all the way to London lookin' for Jesus... because we brought him with us."



Their skilful vocal arrangements were most apparent on Amazing Grace, which borrowed the chord progression normally associated with House of The Rising Sun. Lead guitarist Joey Williams, rhythm guitarist Caleb Butler and superb bassist Tracy Pierce extended the range and complexity of the vocals on this tune, which is apparently Clarence Fountain's favourite.

Bishop Billy Powers shone on Lord Remember Me and Let It Down (Holy Ghost), it really helped charge the atmosphere and served as a fiery counterpoint to Fountain. Actually both men worked the crowd hard from the start, standing up when they could and obviously enjoying themselves. The atmosphere was charged further by Power's 'can't sit down' theatrics and long guided walkabout - round the floor and up into the balcony - singing all the way. Sanctified and irresistible.

The crowd were worked over and primed for Through The Storm, which was my favourite song of the night. I have a version by Mahalia Jackson I just adore but hearing these guys do it will stay with me a long time. It was fine stagecraft too; the right song delivered at the right time - just when the audience needed it. The set closed on the stomping I'm A Soldier (In The Army Of The Lord) but the wild applause secured one more song, The Last Time, which was beautiful and poignant.

Okay, I didn't see people fainting or being converted but it was a real taste of what these songs are about. Blues may be Devil's music but, clearly, you can't knock The Lord. I'm not a religious man but maybe these guys are on to something...
!



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