A swinging version of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky,” followed by the slinky “Way Down in the Hole” (the Tom Waits-written theme song from the brilliant HBO series “The Wire”) prepped the packed house for tunes from the Blind Boys’ latest LP, “Take the High Road,” the first to directly inject traditional country music into the classic outfit’s gospel sound.
The Oak Ridge Boys, who sing on the album, are considered something of an oldies act now. And although their predecessors launched the band in the Forties, the current members are pikers compared with the Blind Boys’ 70-something front man Jimmy Carter and a few of his bandmates.
Didn’t take long for the country singers to come up from their table, stage left, to harmonize on the stirring title track, as well as on a rousing, rocking rendition (also on the album) of the Hank Williams classic “I Saw the Light.” Nearly a dozen voices blended beautifully (Despite the differing genres, the hymn books are all the same, no?).Jimmy Carter
Music as liberation, redemption and salvation continued with a funky New Orleans-styled gospel number, followed by a staple of the Blind Boys act: “Amazing Grace,” set to the music of “House of the Rising Son,” with guitarist Joey Williams bending some steamy blues riffs.
Before long, people were on their feet stomping and clapping — a phenomenon not often seen at the Varrick Street winery. Strangers danced with one another at the bar. Even the staff clapped along.
Suddenly, Carter climbed down from the middle of the stage, followed by a guide who quickly put his hand on his shoulder.
With the house lights up, the spindly Carter danced around to the back of the club, singing into a wireless microphone. Anyone still sitting rose; some even followed him, conga-style. Carater paraded back to front, dancing and twirling, his “handler” holding his hand, apparently returning to the stage.Carter in the crowd; guide clapping, right
Then came the part of the routine that breaks everyone up.
On cue, Carter broke off and dashed several feet away, shaking hands and dancing some more. His frustrated guide grabbed his hand again and Carter pretended to head back, before “escaping” a couple times more, driving the joke home (he and vocalist/drummer Eric McKinnie are blind). It didn’t seem hokey, though.
Neither did the Blind Boys signature move: During a few songs, either McKinnie or Ben Moore — filled with the spirit — suddenly rose from his chair. Each time, Williams leaned over, put a hand on the singer’s shoulder and sat him back down — only to have to do it again….
Unfortunately, the joke brought to mind a man who only joined the group a few years ago but made the stunt his own: Bishop Billy Bowers, who, it turns out, was seriously injured last week.
Bassist Tracy Pierce told me after the show that Bowers slipped in the tub, fracturing his spine and breaking his nose.
“He’s in bad shape,” Pierce said.Eric McKinnie
McKinnie, who ordinarily plays drums, replaced Bowers up front and took a couple of early leads. The instrumentalists got their turns during the finale, with the boisterous crowd cheering every flourish.
The Blind Boys come from a rich tradition, one that includes The Soul Stirrers (whose members once included Sam Cooke) and the Mighty Clouds of Joy, who, some may remember, cracked the disco charts in 1976 with “Ride the Mighty High.”
Formed in 1939 as the Happy Land Jubilee Singers, the Blind Boys helped lay the foundation for the soul, R&B and rock that rolled through generations.
Their first single, “I Can See Everybody’s Mother But Mine,” was released in 1948 on a record label in Newark, where a promoter matched them up in a “showdown” at the armory against another blind group, the Jackson Harmoneers. The show was a success, and both groups changed their names to The Blind Boys — of Mississippi and Alabama, respectively — then set off on tours together.
Through the decades, the Alabama gospel group has remained both unique and relevant, playing more than 150 gigs a year and working with, among others, Aaron Neville, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, Asleep At the Wheel, Solomon Burke, Ben Harper, k.d. lang, and Taj Mahal, as well as a performer who three years ago jumped on the Hollywood Knitting Factory’s stage to accompany them: Prince.
In 1983 came “The Gospel at Colonus,” an Obie-award winning Broadway show that culled a new, enthusiastic audience. An appearance at the White House followed, as did a Lifetime Grammy Achievement Award.
Last summer, the Blind Boys put on an astounding performance at Alice Tully Hall with Yo La Tengo, Lambchop, Yim (My Morning Jacket) Yames and Exene Cervenka, backed at times by the Sun Ra brass section.
If they weren’t so eclectic to begin with, the new album could be considered a departure. The Blind Boys’ version of “I Saw the Light,” featuring Hank Williams Jr., has brought renewed attention to a song recorded by hundreds, if not thousands, over the years. Also on the album: Willie Nelson, Vince Gill and several other country stars.
The first encore at City Winery, the lovely ballad “I Know a Place,” also from the new album, featured the lushest harmonies of the night. It gave Moore a chance to finally sing lead, one that was heartfelt and emotional.
The Oak Ridge Boys returned for the perfect closer, “Down by the Riverside,” with the celebrants in attendance singing and dancing along.
Preachers continue to travel the country, bringing their message to the masses. And in downtown Manhattan, at least for one night, it was nice to be reminded that the gospel sound born in the South isn’t just music. It’s so much more.
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