Blind Boys of Alabama
With My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden
Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis
Thursday, November 7, 2013
The Blind Boys of Alabama delivered a 90-minute set of soulful Southern spirituals that gradually got the packed Cedar Cultural Center up out of their seats and dancing. The three ageless vocalists, led by founding member Jimmy Carter, longtime business manager Rickie McKinnie, and the most recent member of the Blind Boys, Paul Beasley, took each of their sacred, Gospel-tinged songs to a truly special place.
The group switched between familiar, standard hymns and material from their new album, I'll Find a Way, which Carter playfully plugged throughout the set. He exclaimed after the crowd cheered for each new song, "That one's on the new record." It's refreshing for an indie-rock kid like myself to look around the club and see so many people smiling, with the music being generated on stage causing everyone to feel better as opposed to tapping into their darker traits and tendencies. The Blind Boys' music has a rapturous, euphoric quality to it that instantly warmed up the packed room and the hearts of all who were in it.
Carter handled all of the exuberant between-song banter of the well-paced set, taking the stage with welcoming words of introduction, "All right, my friends. Here we are, the Blind Boys of Alabama, and we are cold in Minneapolis. I know y'all are used to it, but I'm not quite used to it yet. I hope we can say something or sing something that will rise you up and make you feel good. So, sit back, relax -- take your shoes off if you want to -- and listen to the Blind Boys."
The set began with a rich, swelling version of "People Get Ready," with the band -- composed of music director Joey Williams on guitar, Peter Levin on Hammond B3 organ, Benjamin Odom on bass, and Austin Moore on drums -- crafting a pulsating sound that elevated the vocals as well as the unifying nature of the song itself. A passionate take on "Spirit in the Sky" kept the energy level high, but it was a rousing version of Tom Waits's "Way Down in the Hole" (featured on The Wire) that really ignited the set, with the Blind Boys taking us all to church with the strength of their conviction as well as their resonant voices.
After joking about how he keeps asking for reports on how their new album is doing, Carter went on to describe a bit of the recording process: "We went to Justin's [Vernon] home in Wisconsin last December to make this record. And it was cold. But he had a warm house and a warm heart. Justin was a very nice gentleman." The band then launched into a string of songs from I'll Find a Way, leading off with the soulful swing of the album's lead track, "God Put a Rainbow in the Cloud."
Carter then introduced Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, who opened the show with a solo set and would triumphantly sit in with the Blind Boys as well. "Shara is a good, good friend of the Blind Boys," Carter said affectionately, before she led the band through an impassioned take on the new record's title track, completely losing herself in the steadfast sentiment of the song.
"Shara, you be good over there. You sound...wow!" Carter exclaimed. "She's on that new record, y'all!" Carter then got serious as he introduced the next number, "The late Lou Reed did this next song with us, and he was kind enough to take Shara and us to Australia for a show he was putting on. This is a tribute to the late, great Lou Reed." A stunning, heartfelt version of the Velvet Underground classic "Jesus" followed, with Worden blending her soaring vocals with the velvety soul of the Blind Boys. It was a touching tribute to the legendary musician, and unquestionably one of the night's best moments.
The Blind Boys then brought out Michael Lewis (Happy Apple, Bon Iver, Andrew Bird) to play saxophone on a few numbers, with Carter playfully reminding us, "He's on that new record, y'all." Lewis's sax gave vibrant undertones to glorious versions of "I've Been Searching" and "Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave It There," but it was "There Will Never Be Any Peace Until God Is Seated at the Conference Table" that truly enlivened the crowd and band alike. Paul Beasley took over on vocals, rising out of his chair and animatedly jumping in time to the music, clearly lost in the emotions of the joyous number.
After the well-earned ovation died down and Lewis left the stage, Carter introduced the next number by saying, "It's a toe-tapper, it's a hand-clapper. It goes like this," and the band eased into the funky, rhythmic "I Shall Not Be Moved," which slowly got pockets of people in the crowd up out of their seats as the celebratory song took a strong hold of the audience. The band then laid down the ominous arrangements of "The House of the Rising Sun" underneath the Blind Boys singing the well-known hymn "Amazing Grace," which proved to be a potent combination that elegantly filled the small room with its message of hope.
The set ended with a lengthy version of "Look Where He Brought Me From," which featured Carter being ushered off the stage and through the crowd, as he connected personally with the supportive audience as the band kept the song rolling on stage. After Carter returned, he let each member of the group stretch out a bit for a well-deserved solo after being introduced to the crowd, before the Blind Boys brought the song and the show home triumphantly, leaving everyone in the room feeling better than we did just hours before.
Personal Bias: While I'm a newly converted fan of the Blind Boys of Alabama, I definitely remember seeing their Letterman performance with Lou Reed a few years back, and was impressed with them then, and even more so now that I've seen them in person.
The Crowd: Full of music lovers both very young and very old, all there to be transported by the boundless spirit of the Blind Boys.
Overheard in the Crowd: "I'm sorry, I've just got to start dancing to this one."
Random Notebook Dump: My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden put on one of my favorite opening sets of the year, alternating between keyboards and guitar during her highly personable 35-minute solo performance. In addition to playing "Be Brave," "High Low Middle, " and the tender lullaby to her little boy Constantine, "I Have Never Loved Someone," from her last album, All Things Will Unwind, Worden also gave a bluesy nod to where she was by covering Prince's "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore." When she asked the crowd what time it was and someone said "8:05" and she said, "Oh, I've got to go," he responded by joking, "Then it's 7:45," as we all wanted Worden to keep playing. It was a magnificent performance.
People Get Ready
Spirit in the Sky
Way Down in the Hole (Tom Waits)
God Put a Rainbow in the Cloud
I'll Find a Way (with Shara Worden)
Jesus (the Velvet Underground)(with Shara Worden)
I've Been Searching (with Michael Lewis)
Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave It There (with Michael Lewis)
There Will Never Be Any Peace Until God Is Seated at the Conference Table (with Michael Lewis)
I Shall Not Be Moved
Look Where He Brought Me From