Blind Boys take crowd at Mahaiwe to church
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., February 11, 2002) – It was even more than the spirit, of which there was plenty, that made the gospel tribute to W.E.B. Du Bois featuring the Blind Boys of Alabama at the Mahaiwe Theatre on Sunday night so exciting. It was, as the M.C. said at the outset of the evening, the purely celebratory aspect of the music. In a word, it was incredibly fun.
The Blind Boys of Alabama did indeed transform the Mahaiwe into a church by the end of the evening. But whether you believed or not in the particular lord about whom they were singing did not matter one whit. Because they were essentially celebrating another kind of spirit – the human spirit – and its capacity for goodness, joy and more than a little letting loose and having a good time.
From the first number, when George Scott of the Blind Boys launched into their set with a juiced-up version of the traditional tune, “Run on for a Long Time,” the energy level in the theater spiked one-hundred percent and stayed there for the rest of the night.
It was an apt choice to launch the Blind Boys’ set, as the old staple of the Golden Gate Quartet was given new life a few years back by a deft sampling on Moby’s “Play” album. The Blind Boys’ rendition is firmly rooted in their hard-gospel, Pentecostal style, but it also rocks with the fervor of contemporary hip-hop, and from that moment on everything else was icing on the cake.
In addition to Scott, the group included two other original members of the Blind Boys. Clarence Fountain, the baritone, was the nominal leader and a playful showman, popping up every now and then from his chair, pulling his jacket off his shoulder and swiveling his hips ever so slightly, as if to say we may be religious, but we like to get down every once in a while like just like anyone.
But it was tenor Jimmy Carter who put the show, presented by Club Helsinki, over the top. He kept his cache of energy in reserve until late in the show when he took it to the house, and worked the audience for at least 15 minutes, up and down the aisles, bringing the gospel to the people, seemingly oblivious to time and the band, which included two guitarists, a bassist and a drummer. Carter extemporized and improvised call-and-response phrases and stretched out notes for seemingly impossible lengths of time.
The singers, all in their 70s, boasted superb voices, and lent harmonies to each other on songs including a bluesy rendition of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” a version of “Amazing Grace” sung to the melody of “House of the Rising Sun,” and Tom Waits’s “Way Down in the Hole,” another showcase for Carter, which had a hint of reggae in the guitar.
The Holmes Brothers warmed up the crowd for the Blind Boys. In any ordinary show the trio’s brand of rootsy, soulful blues and r&b would have been distinctive, but the Blind Boys simply blew them away. No one possibly could have left the theater thinking much about the Holmes Brothers after the Blind Boys swept everyone away on their mighty clouds of joy.
The crowd was, however, likely to have remembered some of the young children from the Jubilee School in Philadelphia, who opened the evening with recitations of stories and poems about W.E.B. Du Bois. The presentation set the tone and context for the evening, establishing what was to come as a tribute to this town’s most overlooked native son. Undoubtedly the spirit of Du Bois, like the spirit of everyone else in attendance, was transformed on Sunday night by what is likely to be remembered as one of the best concerts of the year – or ever -- by critics and audience members alike.
[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on February 13, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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