review: Blind Boys of Alabama at Davies Symphony Hall, December 19, 2010, Bluesy Gospel for the Season
Last night’s performance by the the Blind Boys of Alabama at Davies Symphony Hall was magic— head-clearing, heart-opening, let loose and dance magic that got hearts pounding and spirits flowing. The Blind Boys got together way back in 1939 at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind and while some of their original members have passed, they have found their way through nearly seven decades by belting out impeccable harmonies that beautifully blend old time gospel spirituals with blues, rock, reggae, and country. You may have seen them on Letterman or PBS. They have received 5 Grammy Awards, been celebrated by The Grammys and The National Endowment for the Arts with Lifetime Achievement Awards and inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. The group currently includes vocalists Jimmy Carter, Bishop Billy Bowers, and Ben Moore, and drummer Eric (Ricky) McKinnie, lead guitarist Joey Williams, and Tracy Pierce on bass. The main focus was on the core trio of vocalists, especially lead singer and founding member Jimmy Carter, a spry octogenarian, who opened by telling the audience that the Blind Boys don’t like to perform for conservative audiences. The reverie of claps and whoops in response assured him that San Francisco was cool enough to take whatever they had to offer.
Though designated a Christmas concert, the Blind Boys didn’t promote that theme too hard. Of the evening’s five holiday songs, only three were well-known standards. Ben Moore’s soft and tender delivery of “Silent Night’’ gave souls pause while “Go Tell It on the Mountain’’ was a jazzy, organ-dominated blues that got people clapping—gospel (off beat) and normal style. It was “Amazing Grace” set to the acoustic guitar chord sequence of “House of the Rising Sun” that transfixed the crowd. So unexpected was this combo, that at first it was impossible to tell there was a familiar spiritual in the lyrics. At the end of the song, founding member Jimmy Carter held a note full force for what seemed like a minute and then he did it again later– cocky and joyous. For the most part, the trio mainly remained seated front and center until it was time to step up and grab the microphone and sing and then each shimmied and rocked in his own way. Jimmy Carter told us all he was hungry and that about sums it up…these men are in their golden years but still hungry for life. During a lively rendition of “Look Where He Brought Me From,” Carter walked the aisles of the symphony hall with a string of dancing audience members in toe. While the Blind Boys might have sensed it, the crowd itself was a spectacular and wildly colorful seasonal site to behold—bold red jackets, lots of velvet, fur, and big glittery jewelry melded with traditional upper crust diamonds and tuxes. And in the upper tier, two luscious ladies tightly packed into low-cut bright red halter dresses stood on their chairs and swayed with hands raised high to heaven, evangelical style. Special guest acclaimed soul/blues singer Ruthie Foster opened the concert.
“Go Tell It on the Mountain” will next be performed in Los Angeles on December 20 (tonight) at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Details: Davies Symphony Hall annual “Holiday with the Symphony Series” runs December 2-31, 2010. The series has two remaining performances: “Twas the Night” (Wed, Dec 22, 2010 – Fri, Dec 24, 2010) and New Year’s Eve Masquerade Ball with the San Francisco Symphony (Fri, Dec 31, 2010) (For details on New Year’s Eve pre-concert dinner packages, call patron services (415) 864-6000.) (For details on special hotel packages, call (800) 441-1414. ) Tickets: www.sfsymphony.org