Concert Preview: Dr. John & The Blind Boys of Alabama E-mail
by John Sinkevics

The historic pairing of New Orleans R&B piano icon Dr. John with the much- beloved, Grammy-winning Blind Boys of Alabama promises to unleash “spirituals to funk,” with plenty of jazz and blues in between.

drjohnhat But make no mistake: The Blind Boys of Alabama are purely and exclusively a gospel group – and have been for more than 70 years – even if their musical textures range from blues to country.

So says longtime group member Jimmy Carter, whose inspirational performances with his bandmates have captivated audiences across the world since 1939, when he was just a kid.

“Gospel, blues and all that stuff, they all go hand in hand,” he told me in a recent phone interview just before heading out on a 30-city tour for the first time ever with Dr. John – a tour that stops Tuesday at DeVos Performance Hall in Grand Rapids. (Show time, 7:30 p.m.; tickets, $39.50 and $49.50 through Ticketmaster.)

“But let me be clear: We don’t sing anything but gospel now. We only sing gospel music.”

He quickly added: “We sing gospel, but I love all kinds of music. Especially I’m a country music buff. I love country music.”

So, it’s no surprise that The Blind Boys of Alabama, formed at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in Talladega, last year released a country gospel album for the first time ever. It was recorded in Nashville with Jamey Johnson, Hank Williams Jr., Vince Gill and The Oak Ridge Boys.

“It was a lot of fun,” Carter said. “We did it in Nashville and it was a great, great experience. I had a chance to meet some of my country heroes.”

Consequently, Carter said the group will “do some of those country songs on this tour.”

Those selections aside, this Dr. John-led “Spirituals to Funk” touring project primarily explores the musical connections between gospel, blues and jazz “based on the legendary Carnegie Hall ‘Spirituals to Swing’ concerts produced by John Hammond in the 1930s.”

One California reviewer described an early show on the tour as both “rousing” and “satisfying.”

While it’s the first time the artists have hooked up on the road, they’ve collaborated previously, with Dr. John appearing on The Blind Boys’ 2007 album, “Down in New Orleans” and The Blind Boys participating in Dr. John’s tribute to Louis Armstrong.

Blind Boys of Alabama Together, their musical legacy covers more than a half-century, with The Blind Boys of Alabama still playing upwards of 150 to 200 dates a year.

Carter won’t reveal his age, other than to joke that he’s over 50 and he’s “no spring chicken.” But Wikipedia lists Carter as being born in 1929, which would make him at least 82 years old, nearly putting him in the same league as legendary singers and stage performers B.B. King and Tony Bennett.

At 71, Dr. John is no spring chicken, either, but the influential New Orleans pianist and singer also known as The Night Tripper and Mac Rebennack has rightly enjoyed a renaissance in popularity the past couple of years with some compelling albums and partnerships.

Most recently, The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach produced Dr. John’s latest soul- drenched album, 2012’s “Locked Down,” earning nearly universal acclaim from fans, critics and media outlets. Rolling Stone magazine raved that the recording is “full of muscled, vintage R&B grooves, fevered soloing, psychedelic arrangements and oracular mumbo jumbo.”

“We’re all great fans of his and he’s a great fan of ours,” Carter said. “We’ll be doing a lot of stuff together and we’ll also be doing things separately. One of the songs we’ll be doing is ‘What a Wonderful World’ by Louis Armstrong.”

It’s certainly been a wonderful world for The Blind Boys of Alabama, who’ve won five Grammy Awards as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award from the recording academy, after starting out as children performing for “chump change” back in the day.

“What keeps me going is … we love what we do,” Carter insisted. “Anytime you love what you’re doing, it always keeps you motivated.

“What comes from the heart reaches the heart. We sing from the heart. That’s what we like to do. When I go on stage, I always tell the people we can sing something that will lift you up and make you feel good. We have a message to give. We talk about Jesus. That’s our message.”

Music critic and entertainment writer John Sinkevics comments on the local and national music scene at, and spotlights artists at 10 a.m. Wednesdays on Local Spins Live at News Talk 1340 AM (WJRW).

Published: October 21, 2012

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