Live Review

Blind Boys Of Alabama - Bumbershoot Festival (Seattle, WA)

Blind Boys of Alabama on August 30, 2003

It's long been a tradition in soul bands to have an MC start the band up before the singer is escorted out. The singer appears only when the audience is already in a rapture, after a long introduction. With the Blind Boys of Alabama, the MC has a more practical purpose: He's there to make sure singers Clarence Fountain and Jimmy Carter, both blind and in their late 70s, find their way onstage. While many MCs spend much of the concert exhorting the crowd, the Blind Boys MC had the opposite job: He had to calm his charges, repeatedly trying to get them to sit down. They, not the audience, provided the rapture.

Blame it on the Holy Ghost. A Blind Boys show is both a traditional gospel concert -- every tune touches on Jesus -- and a rock 'n' roll revival of a sort. Though this band has toured with Tom Petty, and even once appeared on "Beverly Hills 90210", they don't pander their message, which Fountain summed up simply: "I didn't come to Seattle looking for Jesus; I brought him with me."

Within that message, these near-octogenarians can rock. Backed by a stellar band, the remaining three original Blind Boys -- Fountain, Carter, and drummer George Scott -- managed to get a secular crowd on their feet screaming as if they were under an evangelist's tent. By skillfully reframing traditional gospel spirituals into an R&B context, they were able to challenge the McCaw Hall audience into examining how closely gospel and soul music are rooted together.

Nothing illustrated this more than the Blind Boys' version of "Amazing Grace". Rather than playing this chestnut the way it is heard in most churches or Joan Baez concerts, they have married the lyrics with the chords to "House Of The Rising Sun". Combined with Fountain's deep baritone and Carter's softer falsetto, the effect was revelatory, bringing the crowd to their feet, and perhaps saving a few souls in the process.

Fountain spoke between every song, his stage patter as corny as it was sincere. "We're going to sing some songs you might like, and some you might not like," he said, though the latter wasn't true. Before every song he declared, "This is a good song and I like to sing it." In between his testimony to the Lord, he wasn't against some old-fashioned salesmanship: "Go and get our CD because every time you get one, I can eat a hot dog."

The Blind Boys have found their calling, or, as they would argue, the calling has found them. Their take on Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" was spine-tingling, and when Carter ended the show by going out into the audience -- with the MC holding his hand, looking nervous that Carter might fall -- fans rushed to touch him as if he were Bono. This ancient, blind man was able to dance and shake with a power that was testament to something otherworldly.