(Photo by Kathleen Schenck)
Why can’t all Christmas music be performed like this?
Well, not every act doing Christmas music is the Blind Boys of Alabama, here joined by Texas folk-blues artist Ruthie Foster and New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Legacy Horns on Sunday night at the ornate Theatre at the Ace Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles for a stop on the group’s annual Christmas tour. Presented by UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance, this was not your run-of-the-mill holiday concert.
No Frosty. No Rudolph. Heck, no Santa! This was CHRISTmas music. “White Christmas” was about as secular as it got.
“Go Tell It On the Mountain,” as heard in the video, is only sort of Christmas music. Yeah, it’s about the nativity and does show up on some seasonal music albums (it was the title song of the Blind Boys’ 2003 album of such), but really it’s a 19th century African-American spiritual, a forceful gospel declaration of hope and spirit that transcends any specific time of year.
As such it doesn’t stand apart from much of the Blind Boys repertoire, or that of gospel as a whole, where a good deal of the songs are about the joy of Jesus in the manger, and a good deal of the rest are about the sorrow of Jesus on the cross — and the joy of his resurrection.
So while the Blind Boys, the group formed at the Alabama School for the Negro Blind in 1939 and still fronted by founding member Jimmy Carter, did devote about half of its set to Christmas songs Sunday, it’s not like the rest of the show wasn’t tied to that as well.
There was another aspect to this show, though, something new for the nearly 80 years that the Blind Boys has been an active group: The group’s own story. Its recent album, “Almost Home,” features songs custom-written from tales told by Carter and Clarence Fountain (the other living founder, though he no longer tours with the group) about their lives. With Carter, closing in on 90, flanked by fellow singers Eric “Rickie” McKinnie (a kid at just 65 who joined the Blind Boys in the early 2000s) and Ben Moore (a decade younger than Carter and a member since 2006), they opened this show with the title song. It’s a powerfully personal ballad in which Carter starts by telling of being put on a train as a frightened child to go off to the school, and then finding friends and singing partners and a purpose in his life, guided and bolstered by faith through good times and bad and looking now to what comes next:
I’ve come a long, long way from Alabama, I’ve been a long time gone. And I’m almost, almost home.
It’s the album of their lives, but also an album of facing death. Now, don’t be all sad about that. They didn’t seem to be. Not only do they have faith that there is more to come after the end of this life, but Carter impishly used it as a come-on in several pitches for the new album, which of course was on sale in the lobby (and otherwise, at this point, only available via a deal with Amazon).
You might want to buy this now, he told the audience. “There might not be another one.” And he laughed, as did we. Later, that impishness came to full flower with the rousing gospel stomper “Look Where He Brought Me From.” Early in it, McKinnie and Moore kept standing and stepping to the beat with increasing ecstatic further, defying guitarist Joey Williams’ attempts to get them to sit and not over-exert themselves. Of course, it was theater, something that’s been part of every Blind Boys show for ages. And soon Carter was in on it too, seemingly unable to contain himself, even doing a spin move, before their road manager finally took him down into the audience, where it seemed he really couldn’t contain himself. This was the climactic excitement we all came to see, and we ate it up. Well, here, watch. Watch all of it — and this isn’t even the complete song:
So yeah, it was as night of life and spirit, of Christmas and of every day. Foster, on the heels of her fine “Joy Comes Back” album, kicked it off in great form. Performing solo with an electric guitar (she has some great chops and should perform this way more), she told stories of her grandmother holding down the Amen Corner in church and her grandfather coming home drunk and relegated to a cot under a big oak tree, sang songs of liberation — spiritual, cultural and personal — with a powerful voice and brought the house down and the audience to its collective feet with a closing, a cappella “Don’t You Mind People Grinnin’ In Your Face,” video of the last part of that here:
And the Preservation Hall horns — trumpeter Kevin Louis, saxophonist Calvin Johnson and trombonist/joker Freddie Lonzo — kicked off the next portion with a couple of spritely New Orleans tunes, and a little bit of entertaining schtick, backed by the Blind Boys’ sharp band.
After “Pray for Peace,” the whole crew returned for an encore of “Last Month of the Year,” another Christmas-specific gospel turn, keeping some of the momentum going and sending everyone into the night buoyant with the everyday spirit with which the Blind Boys have sung through the decades.
Why can’t all concerts be like this?