THIS PAST FRIDAY NIGHT'S BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA SHOW found what seemed like a near-capacity crowd at Tybee Island’s laid-back seafood restaurant Café Loco on fire with the sounds of full-tilt Southern gospel and fierce Delta soul.
The concert was beyond intimate (the result of a last-minute venue change after Hilton Head’s Shoreline Ballroom —which claims to hold as many as 1,500 patrons— somehow managed to sell less than 40 tickets for these multiple Grammy winners), with the four lead vocalists and their four-piece backing band crammed together on a tiny, low corner stage that —believe it or not— had actually been specially extended just for this performance.
How small was this stage? Well, the Blind Boys, some of whom are wont in their live appearances to gesticulate wildly and prowl the stage unfettered (despite their lack of sight) barely had enough room to stand up and lean toward the crowd without banging elbows with each other. Their tall and formidable bassist spent most of the night perched half-on and half-off of a bar stool, his trademark top hat glancing the angled corner of the room’s ceiling.
However, the close quarters did nothing to diminish the power of the Blind Boys’ show, which, while substantially similar to the one they gave earlier this year as part of the Savannah Music Festival (they pretty much filled the 1,200-seat Trustees Theater that night), did include a few specialty Christmas numbers such as “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” along with material often heard in their sets of recent years, like their fiery re-working of Tom Waits’ crepuscular “Way Down In The Hole” (as heard during the opening credits of HBO’s acclaimed TV series The Wire), “I’m a Soldier (In the Army of The Lord),” and their unique arrangement of “Amazing Grace,” set to the melody of the Louisiana hooker’s lament “House of The Rising Sun.”
After a workmanlike solo acoustic set of well-known country, folk and blues covers (including tunes by Johnny Cash and Steve Goodman) by “Georgia Kyle” Shiver —a locally-based singer and guitarist who plays this restaurant and bar frequently— the crowded room buzzed with anticipation for the arrival of the headliners, whose tour bus idled in the parking lot outside.
I was initially befuddled at just how these older (and in some cases, downright elderly) blind gentlemen would actually get up onto the stage safely (as there were no steps or ramp of any kind provided). That conundrum was solved by literally turning an unused PA speaker upside down, allowing them to use the heavy, black box as a single step to boost themselves (with help from a trusted associate and handler) onto the sturdy wooden stage.
As there is no dressing room of any kind at this venue, the band and vocalists entered the room the same way the audience did: through the front door. Their short march through the crowd was enough to have the entire place clapping and whooping with anticipatory delight.
From the start of the show till its final moments (which saw the seemingly frail frontman Jimmy Carter leave the stage and wander throughout the crowd, cordless mic in hand, beaming with joy as if testifying at a church revival), the mostly respectful and mostly white audience immersed themselves in the Blind Boys’ experience. At times, though, it was a bit odd to watch the group’s finely-honed, time-honored religious stage show in a talkative and somewhat rambunctious bar crowd environment.
Yet, part of this group’s appeal is that they long ago realized the potential for taking their music and their witnessing into non-traditional venues. In a way, it seems as though they thrive on the incongruity of it all.
When all was said and done, it was a wonderful and strange opportunity to see a dazzlingly talented and unique group like this in what surely constitutes one of the high points of their incredibly long career. Despite pleas for an encore after their over-the-top finale, the band retired to another part of the restaurant to sign CDs and meet their fans, and the whole thing seemed like a successful night. Kudos to Café Loco owner Joel Solomon for stepping up to the plate and taking a financial risk to rescue this show for our area.
I would be remiss, however, if I did not mention the fact that a few folks who were in attendance that night have since expressed their disappointment to me about the actual logistics of the show. While Café Loco’s legal capacity allowed them to sell up to 200 tickets for this concert (I have no idea how many were actually sold, but I would guess it was close to that amount), the simple truth of the matter is that the layout of their business did not allow for 200 people to be in the same room with the band.
In other words, there were folks who paid for a ticket just the same as everyone else, but who literally were in a different room. They could hear the show, but had only sporadic chances to get a glimpse of the performers onstage.
It’s worth noting as well, that it’s a very good thing it did not rain that night, as the venue opened the large French doors and many of the windows in the performance area (which lead to an outside deck). This made for a chilly breeze inside the room before it filled up with patrons, but it allowed a good number of folks to actually stand outside in the cold and watch the show through the windows.
In fact, the soundman actually placed his mixing board outside on the deck and ran sound from that odd vantage point. Had there been precipitation —causing the windows and doors to be shut, and the soundman’s gear to be brought inside— it would have further limited the capacity of the performance room, and prevented even more ticket holders from viewing the concert.
One final note: Just before he went onstage, “Georgia Kyle” sidled up to me to express his excitement at having the chance to warm up the crowd for such living legends of Americana (I still don’t know why Shiver didn’t take that opportunity to play an entire set of original material from his own indie CDs). When I asked if he was uptight about playing before such a respected group, he replied with a nervous laugh, “I feel like I’m about to star in a porno film next to Ron Jeremy!”
I must say that’s an analogy I never expected to hear from someone in this particular situation. But with all due respect, it was both humorous and self-aware.
Listen & Learn: www.blindboys.com