The Blind Boys of Alabama

World Café Live / Philadelphia, PA

Blind Boys of Alabama

“We hope we can sing something that’ll lift you up and make you feel good,” Jimmy Carter rasps to greet us. At 85, the group’s remaining active founder shows a zest impressive for any age. He happily returns a “We love you!” from the floor and promises a heartfelt performance. Sure enough, the band sheds any rustiness during Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” and for 80 minutes they fill the room with those gorgeous gospel harmonies that have defined the Blind Boys for seven decades.

The group creates a sound as rich as its history. Carter sits flanked by longtime mates Ben Moore and Ricky McKinnie (both also blind, though thankfully that’s not a strict requirement) and joined by newer faces Paul Beasley and Joey Williams. Behind the colorfully-suited frontline, a frenetic rhythm section keeps bouncing and stomping with flair. The singers remain vibrant, standing, shouting, clapping and/or shaking booty whenever the mood hits. This is one group unafraid to dance like nobody’s looking.

It makes a rousing set of soul, blues and songs of praise, fitting recent recordings (“I Shall Not Be Moved,” “My God Is Real”) alongside classics like “Uncloudy Day” and “Spirit in the Sky.” Of course they make time for one of the most timeless of all, “Amazing Grace”–though interestingly, this treatment is minor-keyed and haunting enough for the rawest Delta blues.

Whatever the mood, they keep the room moving and even the servers swaying on their rounds carrying drinks. When Carter’s guide leads him offstage for a late-set crowd-walk, the smiling audience is on their feet and ready to greet him with hugs and handshakes. Any religious experience worth its salt is about communion, after all–and from the spirited shouts to the call-and-answer games and laying on of hands, the Blind Boys of Alabama don’t rest until everyone can feel the love.

-Geno Thackara

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