In North America, the gospel music that originated in the African American churches of the American South provided the foundation for the majority of our popular music today. So it's not too surprising that its popularity has spread far beyond the confines of the church and is appreciated by audiences of all faiths.
In fact, these days you're just as liable to hear gospel music performed in a bar on Friday night as church on Sunday morning. Of course there's more to gospel's appeal than the fact that it sounds like some of our popular music. You're also not likely to hear any other genre of music played with the amount of passion and the depth of feeling that you're liable to hear at your average gospel concert.
Therefore, you just have to know a concert featuring The Blind Boys Of Alabama and special guests like Dr. John, Susan Tedeschi, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band among others, is going to be something a little extra special. How special though, you don't quite realize until you've seen it, and thanks to a new DVD, The Blind Boys Of Alabama Live In New Orleans on Saguaro Road Records, everybody can see just what an amazing concert it was.
The concert took place in the spring of 2008 at the Tipitina club in New Orleans, and the DVD contains all sixteen songs that were played that night, plus a feature on the making of the Blind Boys' CD, Down In New Orleans. That CD represented the first time the group had ever recorded in New Orleans, and it had featured a number of musicians from the city. The concert at the Tipitina was a means of celebrating that release and a chance to play some of the material from the disc live with people involved in the recording and a few of the band's close friends. Now I've heard plenty of gospel music over the years, and seen quite a few concerts both live and taped, but I don't think I've quite seen one as potent as the concert recorded on this DVD.
When you look over the track listing for this concert you're going to see a lot of familiar song titles; "Amazing Grace", "Down By The Riverside", "People Get Ready", "Free At Last", and others you know equally well. However don't let that lead you into thinking that you can give this a pass because you've heard the tunes before. I can honestly say that if you haven't heard the Blind Boys of Alabama play them, you'll not have heard them sung quite like they are sung here. "Amazing Grace" has to be one of the most well known gospel tunes ever written, and the one even people who don't like gospel can identify almost from the opening notes. Well, all I have to say is, boy are you going to be surprised when you hear the Blind Boys sing that one.
They've changed it into a deep and slow blues number that sounds for all the world like the Animals singing "House Of The Rising Sun". At first I was really taken aback because not only didn't it sound like any version of the song I'd heard sung before, but also because it sounded unusually dark and brooding for a gospel song. However, once I got over the initial shock and began listening to it carefully, I was able to appreciate what an amazing job they done with it. Instead of being a joyful celebration of faith, they had turned it into a song that reflected the mood of struggle the song's lyrics depict. For the first time I was able to understand what it meant to be lost, and just how hard the struggle to be found really could be.
The first guest to join the Blind Boys on stage was blues guitarist Susan Tedeschi. Now, I've always thought of Tedeschi as a guitarist first and a vocalist second, but after hearing her on this disc I've changed my mind. When she first joined them it was to sing and play guitar on "Free At Last" and "People Get Ready". While she didn't have much opportunity to cut loose on her guitar like she would normally, she did have the opportunity to sing a verse or two on each of these songs, and then again during the grand finale of "I'll Fly Away" that closed the show. Each time she opened her mouth to sing, she absolutely blew me away with her power and the quality of her voice. She has one of those wonderful throaty voices that sound raw with passion without sounding affected. You could tell by her performance that she was just loving every second she got to spend on stage with the Blind Boys and enjoying the opportunity to sing these songs.
That was universal among all the guests, and you couldn't help but be carried away by everybody's enthusiasm. While Dr. John, Marva Wright, and Henry Butler were all equally as good as Tedeschi in their own rights, none of them were able to match what the Preservation Hall Jazz Band brought to the proceedings. "Down By The Riverside" is probably as old a chestnut as you're going to find when it comes to gospel songs, having been played to death by everybody from folk groups to school choirs. So it's quite some feat to make that song sound like you've never heard it before, but that's exactly what the combination of the Blind Boys and Preservation Hall manage to do. They imbue it with so much life and style that every other version I've ever heard before paled in comparison. You felt that if you could only get everybody singing along on "I ain't going study war no more" we'd have peace in our time before you knew it.
Listening and watching the The Blind Boys Of Alabama Live In New Orleans is to truly understand the strength and glory of gospel music. While the members of the group might see it as their mission to be spreading the "good news" of the gospel, even those who aren't of their faith can't help but feel uplifted and joyful by what they hear and see. Passion and faith of that magnitude cross all boundaries of religion and creed, so it's not a matter of what you believe in, but of sharing in the joy of believing. There can never be enough joy in this world, but with people like The Blind Boys Of Alabama around we're always guaranteed permanent pockets of joy and hope.