Opening night of the 2008 Savannah Music Festival kicked things off with a bang when the Blind Boys of Alabama headlined the Trustees Theater on Broughton St. to a full house of rapturous fans and newbies alike.
The crowd, which was overwhelmingly white and older, took a short time to warm to the no-nonsense charm of this esteemed and long-running traditional black gospel group which has (over the past couple decades) been embraced by the roots-rock, soul and Americana communities.
The group features three blind vocalists and a blind drummer ("The only blind gospel drummer we know of - and he's playing with us," chuckled front-man Jimmy Carter during his introductions of the band members) along with a singing electric guitarist (who boasts a Curtis Mayfield-style falsetto), a singing 5-string funk-oriented bass player, and a keyboardist offering piano runs and swirling Hammond organ fills. Amazingly, they've been going strong in one incarnation or another since their formation in 1939!
Jimmy Carter is now the sole original member of the group, and is still capable of deep-throated, growling lead vocals as well as the kind of good-natured humorous stage banter that has long been a staple of the Blind Boys' shows. Still, I could not help but miss the presence of Clarence Fountain, the group's former leader, who recently retired from the band due to health concerns. In many ways, Clarence seemed to be the heart and soul of the group, and although Carter is doing a great job of continuing on with the group's legacy, his slight frame and higher voice seems to carry less gravitas than Fountain, who frankly, seemed to prowl the stage at their shows with only a few small steps and an intense glance.
The set itself featured material from their latest album, Down In New Orleans, which celebrates the rich tradition of Cajun and swing jazz that emanates from the Big Easy, while finding truck with the Blind Boys' gospel background. They also sang and played some powerhouse traditional church tunes, such as "An Uncloudy Day", and their unique, inimitable arrangement of "Amazing Grace", which is actually set to the tune of the New Orleans hooker's lament "House of The Rising Sun." The audience at Trustees was also treated to the call to arms "I'm A Soldier" (in the Lord's army), and a stunning, swampy take on Tom WaitsÂ ÂDown In The HoleÂ, sung with conviction and no small amount of energy by Carter, who exhorted, "You GOTTA keep the devil WAY down in the hole!"
Throughout the night, Carter Âwho, like the other vocalists, alternated standing and sitting while he sungÂ made cheeky mention of the copious number of CDs and other assorted merchandise that the group had available for sale in the lobby. It was funny to someone such as myself, who is familiar with this type of old-school, State Fair-style R & B hucksterism to watch the mixture of laughter and unease with which many in the crowd seemed to bring to Carter's increasingly over-the-top reminders that they should feel obligated to support the group through purchases.
Toward the end of the show, Carter seemed overcome by the spirit of the night, and broke free from his assistant (assigned to keep a close watch on this frail, sightless elderly man) and began to wander toward the lip of the Trustees' stage. It soon became apparent that this was indeed part of the concert itself - traditional church showmanship on display. As his handler carefully assisted Carter down the steep, rail-less stairs that led down from the stage to the carpeted floor of the auditorium, Carter (wireless mic in hand) began to barnstorm up and down the main aisles of the theater, continuing to sing and lead the crowd (all of whom were on their feet by this point, including those in the balcony who craned their necks for a glimpse of the thin man in the white pinstriped suit) in a fiery call-and-response chant. The band played what seemed like the longest bare-bones funk groove in the world while Carter semi-recklessly careened through the crowd, receiving hosannas and gentle back-slaps from many in the audience.
When they had first taken the stage, Carter addressed the crowd, saying "We just wanna let you all know that the Blind Boys don't like CONSERVATIVE audiences. We like RESPONSIVE audiences.Â It took a little while to get there, but by the end of the show, this crowd was as close as possible to getting their church on.
Opening act Adolphus Bell, an Alabama native billed as the world's first "one-man-blues-band" was scheduled to appear as well, but apparently (and unfortunately) did not arrive in time for his set.
The only downer of the night came nera the start of the Blind Boys' set, when Carter told the crowd they had been looking forward to eating some good soul food here in Savannah, but they couldn't find any. It seems they had been taken for lunch to Island Breeze Caribbean restaurant, but that eatery's style of "Jamaican ox-tails" did not suit Carter or his bandmates. Later on he actually mentioned how hungry he was, and asked a friend of his in the crowd to please take him somewhere good to eat after the show!
Next time, the SMF should remember to point their artists to The United House of Prayer's Madison Cafeteria on Ogeechee RoadÂ¦