Review: Blind Boys & Preservation Hall Jazz


The band inserted touchstone moments throughout the set that helped with pacing, such as the dramatic introduction of the horn players after a tight piano trio opening sequence and a guest appearance by Ben Moore of the Blind Boys. They also brought a one-of-a-kind New Orleans tradition to the enthusiastic crowd, forming a second-line march that snaked offstage, through the crowd, out into the lobby, back into the hall and back onstage, where a couple dozen middle-aged revelers got an unexpected moment in the spotlight.

After a surprisingly lengthy intermission, the rambunctious piano and horn party of PHJB was replaced by hyperventilating Leslie swells, crystal clear guitar and the unmistakable vocal harmonies of the Blind Boys. Remarkably boisterous for their age, the elder members cajoled the crowd, gesticulated profoundly during emotional passages, and displayed a passion that is sorely missing from mainstream music. Some would argue that the Blind Boys are mainstream, which might be true – I just think there’s a much bigger stream that dominates the public consciousness.

The Blind Boys haven’t garnered worldwide recognition and endless streams of high-profile collaborations and appearances just because they’re the best gospel music group walking – which they are. Their limitless appeal springs not only from their increasingly rare style but their ability and will to innovate within their realm. No matter how many times I hear their interpolation of Amazing Grace and House of the Rising Sun, it always seems revolutionary and fresh, and this show’s version was no different. Same with their jubilant interpretation of Spirit in the Sky, a rock tune written by a Jew. Norman Greenbaum might not have been totally devoted to his lyrics, but the Blind Boys manage to give the song a deeper meaning without changing a word.


The set included well-sequenced visits to each of the group’s recent projects. The stirring Up Above My Head and the smooth Perfect Peace from their latest album, Duets, appeared next to each other, as did a pair of tunes from the traditional-leaning Down in New Orleans album: Uncloudy Day and I’ll Fly Away, both of which featured additional help from the ever-present Preservation Hall crew. Pianist Rickie Monie proved to be the MVP of the night, adding mellifluous piano to the PHJB set and uplifting organ to the Blind Boys’ performance. He and guitarist Joey Williams served as the instrumental backbone of the evening without taking away from any of the fantastic work by all involved.

After de facto Blind Boys leader Jimmy Carter treated the audience to still more up-close interaction, venturing into the crowd for a grand-finale type gesture, the entire ensemble took the stage for an encore of the tour namesake Down By The Riverside. Feeling the emotional release of playing a tour’s last notes, and with the absent Payton on their minds, the band gave an inspired farewell to each other and the audience. This was a rarified night, where setting, circumstance, and intention coalesced to create an experience that was historic, enchanting, and completely necessary to keep this country’s vanishing musical heritage alive.

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