in performance: the blind boys of alabama

The Blind Boys of Alabama. From left: Joey Williams, Ben Moore, Jimmy Carter, Eric “Ricky” McKinnie and Paul Beasley

Jimmy Carter is one cunning individual. No, we’re not referencing the former President, but rather the last surviving member of the original pack of gospel mavericks making up the Blind Boys of Alabama. But the singer and the President are only a few years apart in age, so that should suggest the level of mutual ingenuity and vigor at work.

At the Singletary Center on Wednesday evening, the singing Carter spent much of the evening seated, serving more as congenial host as the 80-minute concert unfolded than an active participant. There would be a few instances when he would erupt, as in the backbeat savvy “I Can See.” The tune, an original by two of the Blind Boys’ band members (guitarist Joey Williams and bassist Ray Ladson), was a purposeful contradiction, a testament of sight from one who can not physically see. It was also a worldly proclamation worthy of the Blind Boys’ roots renaissance of the past two decades that Carter dug into with glee.

But for the most part, he remained seated and silent, dispatching most of the vocal duties to co-singers Ben Moore and Ricky McKinnie, who sat to each side of Carter onstage. Not that this was shortchanging anyone. McKinnie grabbed hold of the 1970 Norman Greenbaum single “Spirit in the Sky” and injected it with more than enough gospel fervor to make it sound like the kind of Southern spiritual the Blind Boys surrounded themselves with when the group started in the late 1930s. Similarly, Moore offered a confident, calming tenor lead on “God Knows Everything,” a Marc Cohn/John Leventhal work included (as was “I Can See”) on the Blind Boys’ 2017 album, “Almost Home.”

But what of Carter? Content to serve as a congenial emcee with a few appealing quips to trigger audience involvement (“The Blind Boys don’t like to play to a conservative crowd. We want you to wake up.”), the singer almost presented himself as an artist seemingly content in maintaining a retiring stage profile.

Almost.

As the concert headed for home, the group launched into the gospel staple “Look Where He Brought Me From,” a work that was part of the Blind Boys repertoire long before the group’s critical and commercial resurgence began in 2001. At once, Carter came to his feet and sang – and sang and sang. As he was guided to the front of the stage and then out into the audience, the singer was in full testimony mode with a vocal roar that never downshifted in its sense of elation. It was a display of ageless spiritual might, a display one can’t help but think Carter was delighting in holding back on until the show began to wind down.

It should be noted that the performance was billed as a Christmas concert, which was sort of the case. Hearing the Blind Boys sing “Silent Night” and “White Christmas” possessed ample charm, but they were distant entries compared to the gospel fare. The show’s most outwardly seasonal feel emerged when the program turned to a pair of traditional spirituals “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and the show-closing encore of “Last Month of the Year.”

The tunes (both of which were featured on the Blind Boys’ 2003 Grammy winning album “Go Tell It on the Mountain”) encapsulated what the group does best – an emboldened gospel charge delivered with an unspoiled, sage-like conviction and an electric, roots-savvy groove.

“This song’s got a little beat to it,” Carter warned as “Last Month of the Year” commenced. Actually, the whole program did. The Blind Boys of Alabama may be elders of their genre, but at the Singletary, they mastered the art of reaching the soul and making it dance with a joy both earthy but righteous.



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