“We want you wake up,” urged Jimmy Carter, 84, last night at Heritage Hall as the Blind Boys of Alabama served up some serious 21st century gospel to cap off a three-act, roots-rich benefit concert for Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Bluegrass called, aptly enough, Big in the Bluegrass.
Though the venue was more than half empty, those in attendance heeded the call. At its core, the group’s sound was all Southern gospel, full of dynamics and drama, but its music regularly dipped into secular songs – albeit ones with strongly spiritual themes and inclinations. As such, the Blind Boys’ headlining set began with a run of tunes popularized by the Impressions (“People Get Ready”), Norman Greenbaum (“Spirit in the Sky”) and Blind Willie Johnson (“Nobody’s Fault But Mine”), all of which seemed to fit the group’s ragged but immensely devout harmonies. Similarly, the most moving song of the evening sounded heavily traditional, but wasn’t. It was a patient, engrossing reading of the Chi-Lites’ “There Will Never Be Any Peace (Until God is Seated at the Conference Table”) that gave the Southern slant of the Blind Boys’ gospel vision a very worldly glow.
Opening the evening were two miniature sets – about 30 minutes each – by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Roomful of Blues.
Making its second Lexington appearance in less than three months, the Dirty Dozen was all about loose, party-favored fun. It performance was a mix of the band’s New Orleans street parade heritage and James Brown level funk, a blend mirrored in a closing medley of “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Dirty Old Man.” While the thrust of the performance was the group’s front line horn trio, it was baritone saxophonist Roger Lewis who proved to be the MVP, summoning wildly scorched solos but also colors that fueled the music’s more punctuated grooves and, during times when sousaphone wasn’t enough, bass patterns.
The opening performance by Roomful of Blues was, in comparison, scholarly. It too was fronted by horns, but the band’s blend of jump blues, swing and soul was clean and exact, yet still fiercely soulful. “It All Went Down the Drain” was full of playful, brassy sass, “I Would be a Sinner” offered a 12 bar blues variation that veered joyously into swing and “Two for the Price of Ten” triggered industrious sparring between trumpeter Doug Woolverton and pianist Rusty Scott. It all made for a convincing enough appetizer to suggest a headlining show by this veteran Rhode Island ensemble needs to head our way soon.