Words by: Joe Schicke
Blind Boys of Alabama & Preservation Hall Jazz Band
09.16.08 :: Lincoln Center :: Fort Collins, CO
Some say you can never have too much of a good thing, and if that's true, then the Down by the Riverside Tour featuring the Blind Boys of Alabama and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band of New Orleans is the proof. As I sat in the beautiful Lincoln Center, I watched the mostly middle age and older crowd shuffle in for what would be a soul stirring first show of a five night stand in Ft. Collins to kick off a six month North American tour. A couple sat down next to me and the man looked at his program and said to his wife, "Oh this is gonna be good. I didn't realize what this was!" He was probably a Lincoln Center season ticket holder in for a pleasant surprise.
As the house lights went down four members: Mark Braud (trumpet), Ben Jaffe (tuba), Rickie Monie (piano) and Joseph Lastie, Jr. (drums) of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band walked onto the stage. As the stellar musicians launched into "Bourbon St. Parade," we were all instantly transported down to the funky metropolis of New Orleans. The traditional Dixieland jazz instruments melded together to form a sound that reminded me of sticky weather, crawfish and Mardi Gras. Clarinetist Charlie Gabriel came out next, and then trombonist Frank Demond, who has been a member of the band for over forty years and was wearing some nice bright red socks. They reminded me of a bluegrass combo in the way they moved around each other, the instruments weaving in and out of the fabric of the tune. This was no mountain breakdown, however. This was Southern fried jazz at its finest. The big upright bass player, Walter Payton, father of trumpeter Nicholas Payton, came out next to lead the band in "Tailgate Ramble." The third tune of the evening was "Sugar Blues," which had trumpeter Braud showing off a bit at the front of the stage with the mute, mimicking vocal sounds, teasing the old Tin Pan Alley tune "Ain't She Sweet" and even drawing some challenges from his band members. After one particularly dazzling run, someone behind him onstage shouted out, off-mic, "Betcha' can't do that backwards!" and much to the delight of the crowd, Braud played the line in reverse, garnering much applause and laughter.
The party continued throughout the rest of the set, especially when the big man, Walter Payton, laid down his upright bass to front the band for a lively rendition of "If I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate." This found the band in their full-on groove, with Payton evoking Louis Armstrong with his gruff singing and dynamic stage presence. The brilliance of pianist Rickie Monie was showcased on this tune due to a near perfect solo including long augmented runs and Professor Longhair style virtuosity. After the last verse, Payton said, "We gone y'all," and the band erupted into a huge swing romp while Payton moved over to the side of the stage for some impressive leg kicks. Next, Jaffe introduced Ben Moore of the Blind Boys of Alabama, calling the group "as storied a legacy as that of the Preservation Hall." After an inspiring "Glory Day," Moore was escorted off stage as the band brought the second-line tradition of the Mardi Gras parade to Northern Colorado, ending with members of the crowd onstage and dancing in the aisles.
After a short set break the Blind Boys were guided out to their spots onstage in front of a quietly respectful audience. Vocalist Jimmy Carter stepped up to the mic and said, "When I first walked out that was too cold." The people responded by letting loose with the applause the band deserved, and the familiar strains of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" began to fill the theatre. "Do Lord, Remember Me" got hands clapping, and Norman Greenbaum's 1969 hit "Spirit in the Sky" followed, offering an unexpected rock shift to the night. Next up was "God Said It," which included a preface from Carter about the war in Iraq and the problems in Afghanistan, where he said, "No matter how bad it looks, God's in control."
|Blind Boys of Alabama :: 09.16 :: Colorado by Joe Schicke|
The highlight of the night was a track off of the Blind Boys' newest album, Down in New Orleans, recorded last year in the Crescent City. "I'll Fly Away" saw members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band returning to join the Blind Boys for a sound that was like peanut butter and chocolate - they're both good on their own, but together they're extraordinary. The styles of both groups totally blended together, creating waves of harmony that satisfied the soul. The horns riffed quietly while the Blind Boys delivered their verses, but then the trumpet, saxophone and tuba, would erupt into the chorus as the Blind Boys all sang together. Preservation Hall drummer Lastie, Jr. had a huge grin on his face, lifting his sticks high into the air.
"This next song was written by the great Ben Harper," pronounced Carter. "There Will Be A Light" was beautiful, with Ben Moore singing, "I've been runnin' ever since I was a child." "Free At Last," also from Down in New Orleans, was next, with guitarist Joey Williams providing some tasty Pops Staples style lead licks. "Amazing Grace" was set to the music of "House of the Rising Sun," and the last tune, a huge gospel rave-up, had Carter moving through the audience shouting, "Feel good?" while the band and crowd responded, "Yeah!" For the encore both complete bands were onstage together for a version of the gospel classic "Down By the Riverside." It was almost like a large-scale call and response thing, the way the Blind Boys would sing a verse and then the Preservation Hall Band would answer with a swinging horn passage. Everybody was on their feet and clapping, delighting in listening to two musical legends combining their sounds to create truly unique American music, and proving that no, you can never have too much of a good thing.
The Blind Boys of Alabama are on tour now with The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, dates available here.
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