LIVE: Dr. John and the Blind Boys of Alabama @ the Palace Theatre, 11/1/12

Review by Don Wilcock

Five seconds in, I knew we were in for a Chivas Regal night. Never mind that Dr. John had sounded like he was at death’s door during our interview on Halloween, the day before his Palace Theatre show…

Never mind that he drew only 1,000 to a theater that holds three times that number…

Never mind that Jimmy Carter is the last remaining of the original Blind Boys of Alabama and 73 years into his performing career…

Never mind that the Blind Boys are down from five to four…

Never mind that none of the artists on Dr. John’s much lauded new album Locked Down are in his touring band, the Lower 911

Never mind that The Blind Boys were playing for a strictly black southern audience in the ’40s and Dr. John was blending hippie chic and New Orleans kitsch in the ’70s…

Until about 20 years ago the idea of having these two acts play together would have been considered as outlandish as inviting the Sex Pistols to a cotillion.

Never mind that in the gospel, blues and funk traditions this collaboration borrows from, it sometimes takes even the best acts several minutes to build up a head of steam like a freight train leaving Grand Central Station pulling 100 cars…

No, no, this reminded me of an Al Kooper show I saw at The Egg years ago when Al had a crack band of Berklee College of Music professors backing him, and they led with “Green Onions,” exploding off the stage like a cannon.

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Three days after Hurricane Sandy tried to destroy the spirit of New York, two aging but iconic acts injected life into each other, the musical equivalent of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone teaming up to do “Rocky XV.” Dr. John and his band played for an hour and a half straight through, no intermission. The Blind Boys joined them twice looking like four older versions of Ray Charles in their wrap-around shades, rising from their chairs, grooving in place.

“The Blind Boys don’t like to sing to a conservative crowd. They like a noisy crowd,” warned Jimmy Carter who turned the evening into a midwestern tent revival with “If I Had A Hammer.” Peter Seeger and Peter, Paul & Mary never sounded like this.

Guided down the stage steps by fellow group member Joey Williams, Jimmy Carter bathed in the adulation of the fans. A hands-on baptism of hugs and hallelujahs greeted him as he walked across the front row and up the aisle. Dr. John and his crew kept the momentum going, and the Blind boys whipped the ecstatic crowd into a hand clapping sing-along.

Nowhere did the conjunction of the secular and the profane gel better than on the words of “Amazing Grace” sung to the tune of “House of The Rising Sun.” Dr. John easily bested the Animals’ Alan Price on the organ parts, and the band spiked the melody with Nawlins gris gris.

“Big Shot” from Locked Down focused the strength of Dr. John’s groove much the way Jerry Garcia used to during the better second sets with the Dead, a feeling of artful decomposition, a slow decaying reticence. It’s that feeling of slow motion at the same time you’re careening along, an impossible conjunction of weightlessness and heavy funk.

And he did that better on the new stuff than on his signature tune “Right Place, Wrong Time.” Could it be that at 71 he has more of the right stuff than he did as a young turk 40 years ago? Or is it just that he’s tired of dragging out the old war horse?

His secret weapon is trombonist Sarah Morrow, who commanded the band on stage like the Stevie Ray Vaughan of horn players. The first female instrumentalist to become a member of Ray Charles’ orchestra, she toured with Brother Ray from 1995 to 1997. She’s also toured with Grammy-winning jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater and the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Dr. John is obviously inspired by the chemistry that she and the rest of his performing partners bring to this tour.

He told me, “I feel like it’s a beautiful blend, and I just have a lot of fun just playing with them every f***ing night. There’s nothing I could take up that would be better. It’s very therapeutical for me. You know, those are the Blind Boys. It’s a very therapeutical thing. Take our trombonist, Sarah Morrow. She gets very like deep into the thing just like she does with our thing. I love it when she steps in doing certain things with them. The spirit takes us, whether it’s Jimmy, it doesn’t matter which of the cats. It doesn’t matter. All of those guys, they’re so spiritually correct.”

The old cliché about there being only one kind of music – good music – was never truer than at this show. And at a time when religion gets endless bad raps as the cause of conflicts in the Middle East and around the world, it’s encouraging to see the bonds of thousands of years of “tradition” fall away to show people that joy is not just the vision of sinful excess, but rather a celebration of traditions redefined.

SECOND OPINIONS:
Micahel Eck’s review at The Times Union
Sara Foss’ review at Foss Forward
Excerpt from Brian McElhiney’s review at The Daily Gazette: “And they [the Blind Boys of Alabama] certainly took over — from the minute musical director Joey Williams guided founding member Jimmy Carter, Ben Moore and Ricky McKinnie out to the stage, the energy level palpably shot up in the room. After Carter praised the food the band ate that day (pig feet, chicken, collard greens, black-eyed peas and butter beans, if you must know), the foursome wasted no time leading Dr. John and company through a bevy of spirituals, including energetic takes on ‘Spirit in the Sky,’ ‘There Will Be a Light’ and set highlight ‘Free at Last.’ Things got interesting on ‘Amazing Grace,’ which married the familiar lyrics to the melody of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ to create a powerful, melancholy mood. Then, it was back up for ‘If I Had a Hammer,’ which stretched for nearly 10 minutes as Carter vamped on the lyrics, initiating an audience call and response for most of the song. Guided by Williams, he ventured into the audience for the song’s grand finish, shaking hands and dancing with crowd members as he slowly made his way up and down the aisles.”

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One Response to “LIVE: Dr. John and the Blind Boys of Alabama @ the Palace Theatre, 11/1/12”

  1. Gino says:

    Dr John rock the house- I don’t think their was a dry eye in the house when those Blind boys started to kick it, my God the energy that was following through the air was second to none. Darwin wouldn’t of had a chance-

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