Dr. John, Blind Boys of Alabama show lives up to its billing
ALBANY The name of the joint show put on Thursday night at the Palace Theatre by Dr. John and the Blind Boys of Alabama, “Spirituals to Funk,” couldn’t have been more appropriate.
The New Orleans funk, blues and soul legend and the seminal gospel group teamed up onstage and gave the crowd the best of both of their musical worlds. With Dr. John and his Lower 911 band backing the Blind Boys, gospel music never sounded so funky, and the crowd — which filled maybe three quarters of the theater — responded by dancing and singing along for most of the nearly two-hour set.
Dr. John kicked the show off without the Blind Boys, though, offering up old favorites like “Blues in the Night” and strong selections from his latest album, “Locked Down,” a collaboration with The Black Keys’ guitarist Dan Auerbach. The new songs were actually highlights of the early portion of the set — “Revolution,” with its slinky bass line and snarling solos from trombonist Sarah Morrow, got the crowd pumped up (though no one was dancing yet), while the odd rhythmic push-and-pull that started “Big Shot” eventually settled into a powerful groove anchored by bassist David Barard and drummer Raymond Weber.
Of course, there was Dr. John himself, decked out in a loud purple, velvet suit. Although he needed a cane to help him out to his piano and organ setup at the start of his set, he was nothing but energetic in both his playing and singing, nailing his biggest hit, “Right Place, Wrong Time,” before the Blind Boys took over.
And they 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.
More Dr. John songs followed this, as the Blind Boys took a break — “Mos’ Scocious” was a late highlight, locking into a solid groove. The Blind Boys soon returned for the show’s climax, tackling a dirge-y version of “When the Saints Go Marching In” that was reminiscent of their much more exciting take on “Amazing Grace.”
The proceedings ended on a high note, though, with “Lay My Burden Down,” which began with Dr. John’s rough croak and ended with Carter’s wailing, sustained scatting.