The Blind Boys of Alabama at The Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, Mass
Gospel music legends spread their revival to The Berkshires
Few musical acts have cracked the 50 year mark for performances. Those that come to mind, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Chuck Berry and The Rolling Stones stand alone above their contemporaries who have either passed or are slightly younger, including Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltry. Consider those names and wonder who has been performing for more than 60 years, and you are likely to draw a blank. Step back 70 years into the past and this is where The Blind Boys of Alabama stand alone, having sung throughout the world to audiences of all sizes, branding a unique form of gospel music along the way and playing venues in Europe to the inaugural Bonnaroo in 2002. At the Mahaiwe, a beautiful and ornate pre-Depression-era theater just over the Massachusetts border in Great Barrington, The Blind Boys filled the house with a rainbow of a crowd who clamored for their soul-uplifting sound, one that is impossible to bottle.
I had only seen The Blind Boys once before live, at the Beacon Theater in New York City where they came out for the encore of a String Cheese Incident show. I didn’t get the connection or why they would bring them out (the two styles didn’t mesh in my mind) but hearing the memorable “Amazing Grace”, set to the tune of The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” was enough for me to enjoy the moment in eager anticipation of seeing them for a full show one day. Five years later, my wish was granted. Having won five Grammys, including a Lifetime Achievement Award, the band that was once five is now down to three, as age is creeping up on them in this, their seventh decade of performance.
The Blind Boys, led out with assistance, hand on shoulder in front of them, are Ricky McKinnie, Jimmy Carter and Ben Moore, as seated left to right on the stage. Jimmy, the most vivacious of them all was active throughout the night, taking to his feet and the microphone to motivate the crowd to cheer them on as they prepared to play. He spoke in a paced, slow and southern style, taking his time in between numbers to speak to the crowd, transitioning with patience, slow, delayed patience. Joey Williams (Robert Randolph & The Family Band) sang on the higher noted vocals and played guitar, Ben Odom (bass and harmony vocals), Austin Moore carried the band on drums, save one song where Ricky took the sticks, while Peter Levin, a Paul Giamatti stunt double from Sideways manned the piano and organ. The band alone was akin to The Word, the North Mississippi Allstars and Robert Randolph side-project, but a much more old school style, version 1.0.
Although the Blind Boys cannot see, they do move around the stage in their space, knowing how far they have to tread and always with a helpful hand to guide them back when they venture too far from their seats. Carter told stories, McKinnie and Moore sang along side him, taking the lead depending on the key of the tune, but remained the predominant musicians on the stage, far from a novelty but rather a storied group that has spanned more than half a century in their musical careers, turning concerts into revivals wherever they play.
Among highlights of the 90 minutes set include the title track to the Ben Harper/Blind Boys album There Will Be a Light; “Amazing Grace”, set to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun”, a phenomenal version, as seen below; “Look Where he Brought me From” which featured Jimmy Carter taking an extended walk through the crowd, extending his hand to those reaching out to shake his, moving throughout the crowd with ease, surpassing any limits the crowd may expect an octogenarian sans sight. This continued in front of the stage before taking back up to his seat to walk off stage before a call back for the encore. They capped the night off with an encore of “I Saw the Light”, the first track off their latest album, Take the High Road, featuring Hank Williams Jr. on the track, as well as country artists Vince Gill, Willie Nelson and The Oak Ridge Boys adding to the genre-crossing album.
Post-show, the Boys signed autographs in the lobby, shook hands and chatted eagerly with fans and patrons of The Mahaiwe. I spoke to Ricky and Ben and asked them if they remembered the String Cheese show at The Beacon and before I even mentioned the venue, they said “Oh yes, that was a fun show, played ‘Amazing Grace’ with dem boys.” The minds are sharp, the age is just a number and the music is nothing short of amazing. Next time they are in the area, get to seeing the Blind Boys of Alabama, the living legends of gospel music for the masses, not just a Sunday mass.
Intro, Spirit in the Sky*, Way Down in the Hole, God Said It, Take the High Road, I Know a Place, On a Cloudy Day, There Will be a Light, Free at Last, Amazing Grace, Look Where He Brought Me From^, Band intros
Encore: I Saw the Light
^ extended jam with Jimmy Carter walk through crowd