Dr. John and the Blind Boys of Alabama
One of my favorite bands, the Afghan Whigs, recently got back together and started playing gigs again. I’ve been tracking the tour all over the country, hoping that it will land somewhere near me, and although it’s come as close as New York City and Boston, I haven’t been able to get to it. Then, on my recent trip to Colorado, my friend Melissa informed me that she and her husband were attending the Afghan Whigs show in Denver on Oct. 30, two days after I was scheduled to fly back to Albany, and I was immediately overcome with the most intense case of concert envy I’ve ever had. When Melissa sent me a photo and sound clip of the band performing my favorite Afghan Whigs song, “What Jail is Like,” it just got worse.
Fortunately, there was a cure for what ailed me: the Dr. John/Blind Boys of Alabama concert at the Palace Theatre last Thursday. I’m a fan of both artists, but it was the prospect of seeing Dr. John and the Blind Boys take the stage together that really got me excited for this show. A New Orleans native, Dr. John plays a dynamic mix of blues, rock, jazz, funk and boogie woogie, while the Blind Boys are a gospel group known for their spellbinding arrangements of traditional songs, as well as soulful covers of popular hits. Both Dr. John and the Blind Boys have been around forever, and easily qualify as legends; the story of the Blind Boys, who first sang together in 1939 at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in Talladega, Ala., really is interesting, as the group performed primarily for black audiences until the early 1990s, when their album “Deep River” was nominated for a Grammy.
Anyway, Dr. John, in a purple velvet suit, took the stage with his band and treated the audience to a mix of older and more recent material, including two terrific songs off his great new album “Locked Down,” which was produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. Dr. John is the sort of performer who makes everything look effortless; during one song, he played both piano and organ, and when he stood up and showed off his guitar skills, it was hard not to be impressed. His band was just as good, with trombonist Sarah Morrow, in particular, wowing the crowd.
After about a half dozen songs, he was joined by the Blind Boys, and the show really took off. I have a Blind Boys of Alabama CD and it’s good, but a recording really can’t capture the group’s energy, complicated harmonies and stirring spirituality, all of which were reinforced and enhanced by playing with Dr. John and his crew. Most amazing of all was their ability to take three songs that pretty much everybody’s sick of and transform them into something new and exciting: “Amazing Grace,” “If I Had a Hammer” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.” I also really enjoyed their version of “People Get Ready.”
The concert flew by, as great concerts often do, and I was surprised to see how much time had elapsed when I checked my watch after the final song. For one evening, visitors to the Palace were transported to the Deep South, and discovered that it was a pretty nice place to visit. And I also learned a valuable lesson: If you’re sad about missing a concert, just find another one to go to. With any luck, it will be as good as Dr. John and the Blind Boys of Alabama.
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