The Blind Boys of Alabama. Jimmy Carter's on the far left. The guy who looks like he's yawning, Bishop Billy Bowers, has a voice of such arresting intimacy it stops their shows.
My wife Cat and I recently went to see The Blind Boys of Alabama. The group's lead singer, Jimmy Carter, has a voice like a mint julep infused with the rawest moonshine. (Yes, it is that Jimmy Carter: in between hammering away for Habitat for Humanity and solving the Middle East crisis, our former president is an old blind black man who fronts a gospel singing group. How he pulls this off is a mystery known only to God and Jimmy's make-up artist.)
Being in the show's audience was at times a tad uncomfortable, insofar as it was clear just about no one present came into the show knowing that The Blind Boys are a gospel group. Most thought they were going to see hardcore rural blues---acoustic, field holler, juke-joint type stuff. And in a real sense they did get that. But mostly what they got---what in fact they got with every single song -- was pure, unabashed gospel.
Oh, no! Young, organically-inclined, ganja-friendly white people adorned with hemp-cloth shoulder bags and wearing sandals, macrame-berets, and yoga pants having Christian songs sung at them! Not good. Not what they showed up for. Expecting low-down funky blues; getting hands-up joy in the pews.
When the word "Jesus" first came roaring from Jimmy's reedy, bourbon-cured vocal chords, I could feel people around us sort of freeze in mid-groove. Did he just say, "Jesus"? It was like a record had skipped; for a split second it threw everyone off the rhythm of their happy rasta-hop. Makes sense. If I went to see a gospel group, and they started singin' about pimpin' and robbin' jewelry stores, I, too, would feel a stammer in my step.
But everybody got right back into it. They'd probably misheard the word "Jesus,", or it didn't really have much if anything to do with the song. No worries.
Then Jimmy very distinctly sang the word "Jesus" again. People quit committing so much to the physical expressions of their pleasure, and started listening more, particularly to the lyrics. What the heck was going on? Was this some kind of ... Christian show?!
Four songs into the set, the hemp crowd was looking downright disgruntled -- whereas the previously clandestine Christians in the crowd were now waving their hands in the air like they were at an old-time travelin' tent revival. In no time, they had unexpectedly gone from being the old and square ones, to being the hip ones!
Seven songs into it, nobody cared who was old, or who was hip, or who was Christian, or who wasn't: All any of us knew was that we were listening to music as rip-roaringly, foot-stompingly, soul-rattlingly fine as music gets. No one resisted the gospel that night. I believe some folks were converted that night.
After the show, Cat and I were invited backstage to meet the BBA. "Now remember," their manager warned us, "you can't just stand around and smile. You gotta go right up to 'em, touch 'em. They're blind."
"Cool," I said. "Finally, it's proper for me to touch people I don't know."
Cat, sensing I'd probably say something just like that, was already headed back stage. "Wait up!" I said, waving goodbye to the manager. I totally saw her pick up her pace. "Don't touch anyone without me!" I hollered. She practically started jogging.
Like most backstage areas, this one was pretty dismal: couple of couches, a mini-fridge, a table holding a little spread of cold cuts, chips, veggies, dip. Nothing you wouldn't find at a frat party. I espied Jimmy Carter sitting alone on one side of one of the couches, his folded hands in his lap. He was still wearing the highly stylin' seersucker suit he'd performed in. I sat down beside him.
"Can you tell I'm here?" I said. "Not only that," he said, "I can tell you need to go on a diet. Unless you're about seven-foot eight, you obvious lard***."
No, he didn't say that. He screamed for his manager.
"He told me to touch you," I said. "Should I do that now, or wait for him?"
But I jest. In reality I put my hand on Mr. Carter's arm and thanked him for bringing us all a little closer to God that night. Basically, I went around the room to each one of the guys, and thanked them, and chatted with them a little about the quality of what they do. Cat did the same.
Worked for them. Definitely worked for us.
Related-type posts: My Name Is Not Pato Banton (about the night I went to see reggae star Pato Banton at the same club where we saw Blind Boys) and My Private, Difficult Conversation with Chrissie Hynde.