by Kelly Ann Graff
The Blind Boys of Alabama shook up the Guerry Auditorium with their performance on Friday September 21.This concert marked the end of Sewanee Arts Festival, and boy did it go out with a bang. At the beginning of the show, singer Jimmy Carter declared, “Blind Boys don’t like to perform to a conservative crowd. We like a crowd that makes some noise.” Sewanee did not disappoint him. The crowd’s energy built throughout the show: starting with clapping and foot tapping, slowly building until many audience members were dancing in the aisles. By the end of the night, the room was full of such positive energy that everyone left with a smile on their face. On the subject of their music, Carter stated, “We’re going to try to make you feel something you’ve never felt before.” The Blind Boys were quite successful at this, evident by even the people who were most somber at the beginning of the concert, standing and cheering as Carter was lead through the crowd while singing “I Saw the Light.”
The show centered around the three vocalists, all clad in matching silver suites and signature sunglasses. Supporting the singers was one guitarist, bassist, and drummer, and keyboardist who each contributed to the backup vocals. Full of rasp, the music was bluesy but far from melancholic. Each vocalist brought their own unique charm and excitement to the songs, not only through their voices but through their movements as well. For instance, Carter would raise and shake his hand with his impressively long vocal runs and Ben Moore would lean forward and stomp his feet when inspired by the music.
The Blind Boys of Alabama have been performing together for over 70 years, though the lineup has changed with time. During that time they have released 63 albums and received six Grammy Awards including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. The band is presently on tour, supporting their upcoming album I’ll Find a Way.
Though the album won’t officially be released until October, eight concert goers were able to purchase copies of the unreleased album at the show. The album keeps with the band’s traditional gospel style but has contemporary touches brought by the album’s producer Justin Vernon (Bon Iver).
During the concert, the band played a mix of original songs, country gospel hymns, and re-worked covers of classics such as Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky,” and a hauntingly powerful version of “Amazing Grace” set to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun.”
As part of the Sewanee Arts Festival, the concert welcomed students, faculty, and community members of all ages. Initially, these groups sat separately, leaving plenty of marginal space in the auditorium seats, but by the end of the performance, Sewanee students were dancing and mingling with members of the local community, bonding over the spirit lifting music.
One of these dancers was Christian Biedenha (C’17). When Biedenha was asked why he chose to spend his Saturday night at a gospel concert, he responded simply, “Gotta have soul.”