BY NOW, SOME OF YOU MAY HAVE ALREADY HEARD the strange news that Grammy-winning gospel legends the Blind Boys of Alabama will perform with their full backing band tonight at the small Tybee Island bar and restaurant Café Loco.
It’s an unusual venue and a very last-minute booking for this internationally heralded singing act that’s experienced a resurgence in recent years, as they have branched out from the traditional Southern gospel sound they became known for starting in 1939, and cleverly blended it with the type of post-modern roots-rock/funk/soul/Americana that has emerged in the wake of Daniel Lanois’ swampy production on Bob Dylan’s 1989 LP Oh Mercy, Charlie Sexton’s similar work on Lucinda Williams’ 2001 LP Essence and Joe Henry’s retro-nouveaux helming of the great Solomon Burke’s 2004 comeback disc Don’t Give Up On Me.
In the current world of the Blind Boys, soulful takes on old Rolling Stones tunes nudge up next to hymns like “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” and they’re all filtered through a glorious, New Orleans-infused R&B vibe. This progressive approach to what constitutes gospel music has diversified and broadened their fan base, and kept them not only relevant, but celebrated, even as they near their seventh decade as a functioning group (many members have come and gone due to a variety of factors, not least of which is health and age).
Which is to say one should not be at all surprised to hear the boys (now most definitely men) and their crackerjack band of tasteful musicians burn through blues standards like “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” funk nuggets like Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” (popularized by the Red Hot Chili Peppers) and crepuscular Tom Waits oddballs like “Way Down In The Hole” alongside traditional church tunes such as “Amazing Grace” (sung to the melody of the hooker’s lament “House of The Rising Sun” no less) and “Wade In The Water.”
Jimmy Carter, the eldest member of the group told me in advance of their last area appearance (as part of a packed Trustees Theater show during the last Savannah Music Festival) that he and his bandmates see very little dichotomy between a song by Waits and an old religious number folks are used to humming in the pews.
- The Blind Boys of Alabama
“Now, it might have a different sound or flavor, but it’s still gospel and still the Blind Boys,” he enthused. “Sometimes we might have to change some of the lyrics in our version to make it work as a gospel song, but that’s fine. We’ll always be a traditional gospel group. But now, we have tried to incorporate young people into our music. That’s why we brought in folks like Ben Harper (as a collaborator).”
It’s a safe bet that there will be plenty of down-home testifyin’ mixed in with rump-shaking funk and soul grooves at this incredibly intimate club date. There are only 200 tickets available to this standing-room only show. Restaurant owner Joel Solomon, who in the past has taken the financial risk of booking such renowned acts as Mother’s Finest, Edwin McCain and Patterson Hood (of Drive-By Truckers fame) into his small venue, stepped in and “rescued” this gig after Hilton Head’s Shoreline Ballroom canceled the show under confusing circumstances.
“We’ve always prided ourselves on offering the very best live music in Savannah,” says Solomon, adding that this unusual opportunity presented itself via a phone call from the Blind Boys’ booking agent.
“He and I had worked together before on an Edwin McCain show, and he called me up as soon as it was clear the Hilton Head concert was not happening. They just wanted to salvage the show and make sure it still took place somewhere, and we’re excited to be able to make that happen. Sometimes it’s not what you know, but who you know!”
Anyone who bought tickets to the Hilton Head show will find they will be honored at this much smaller (and INFINITELY funkier) room, and Solomon says there are still plenty of tickets available for the Friday night show.
“We’ve sold about half in advance, which for Savannah is very good. Savannah has a terrible problem with people expecting to show up at the door and be able to get in.”
He encourages anyone who wants to come to go ahead and call the venue and charge a ticket over the phone, as it is quite possible this show will be sold out.
“We’re having to bring in an extension for our stage to hold the full band, and hire a professional company to run the sound,” says Solomon. We’ll only have about four tables left up, but as soon as the show is over, we’ll bring the table back out and start serving our dinner menu again for folks who want to stay and have a late meal.”
The show starts at 7 pm with an opening set by local acoustic singer/songwriter "Georgia Kyle" Shiver. The Blind Boys are scheduled to take the stage at 8 pm.
Tickets are $25 for ALL-AGES and can be reserved by calling Café Loco at 786-7810. Listen & Learn: blindboys.com