by Jeff Hahne
Blind Boys of Alabama w/ Mavis Staples
Duke University, Durham
Feb. 8, 2008
Review by Grant Britt
You don’t follow the Blind Boys of Alabama. If they lead, you get out of the way. That’s the lesson Mavis Staples learned the hard way Friday night at Duke University’s Soul Power Series. Though her name appeared first on the bill for the sold-out show, the opening act, the Blind Boys, blew her off the stage.
“We’re gonna make you feel something you’ve never felt before,” Blind Boy frontman Jimmy Carter announced before the group roared into a hard rocking version of “Down By The Riverside.” The Boys don’t just sing gospel, they blast it at you with a ferocity that makes your whole body vibrate. The newest Blind Boy, Bishop Billy Bowers, has a voice like a pipe organ. Although Carter sounds hoarse and gravely voiced when he speaks, his singing voice still has plenty of power and the rasp just adds another chilling dimension .
It’s a tag team affair with the lead being passed around. These guys rock harder than most rockers half their age. The Boys’ signature backing vocal thrum is so dense you can lean on it, providing a velvety backdrop for the lead singer of the moment to push off on. Carter often takes advantage, holding his notes to a degree you wouldn’t think possible for a man in his 80s. Carter says he doesn’t have any tricks or practice circular breathing as some horn players do — it’s just a gift from God. Whatever the source, it’s mesmerizing.
In recent years, the Boys have included adaptations of secular music in their program. Its still eerie to hear the band sing “Amazing Grace" to the melody of “The House the Rising Sun.” One of the most moving is their take on Curtis Mayrfield’s “People Get Ready,” with guitarist Joey Williams turning in a solo that stands up to Jeff Beck’s version with Rod Stewart. Carter ends the set out in the aisle, twirling and shouting like a man possessed, keeping the crowd on its feet for a full 10 minutes. You wonder how the hell anybody is gonna follow this. As it turns out, they can’t.
Unlike the mesmerizing, uplifting show she turned in at Carrboro’s Arts Center last year that left performer and audience exhausted and exhilarated, Mavis Staples’ show here was tired from the beginning. It’s a strange scenario — her gospel is backed by a guitarist and bass player who looked and sounded like ‘50s rockabilly artists. But the guitar player’s work outshined Mavis’ labored efforts at entertainment. Instead of her trademark sexy, soulful moans, she roared hoarsely and sporadically throughout the songs, letting her background singers carry the melody. Fifteen minutes into the show she left the stage and the guitarist launched into CCR’s “Born On the Bayou” then noodled around with some Hendrix licks before Staples comes back out for a hoarse approximation of “I’ll Take You There” that had her out of breath by the first chorus.
Barely 30 minutes after she drug herself onstage, it was over. After a protracted ovation, she was “persuaded” to come back out, and for one song at last she sounded like the Mavis of old, crooning “We Shall Not Be Moved” in a sexy, soulful baritone. She finally got fully engaged in “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” shaking with intensity as she delivered the message crowd came to see. But it was too little, too late. As Staples went off for the last time, with the background singers still singing with the soul and feeling you’d expected from the headliner, the crowd filed out shaking their heads in bewilderment. Instead of being taken there as promised, for Mavis’ show, this audience just got taken.