In his 90s, frail, blind and battling a cold, original Blind Boy of Alabama Jimmy Carter was healed by his band’s music.
During the penultimate number of the band’s celebratory, 80-minute concert inside Bellefontaine, Ohio’s, Holland Theater, Carter was led into the audience, where he enthusiastically walked among his flock and engaged the congregation in a gospel call-and-response while the rest of the band summoned the spirit on stage.
And so it transpired that the theater became a church; Saturday night, Dec. 10 turned into Sunday morning even before the clock struck 9 p.m.; and the exuberant concertgoers left the gig feeling better than they did upon arrival.
On his return to the bandstand, Carter led the group through a rave-up rendition of “The Last Month of the Year,” a number that straddled the concert’s mix of traditional and holiday fare.
Carter is the last of the original Blind Boys of Alabama. And though he spends long stretches sitting motionless on stage and the trio occasionally cede vocals to their band – rhythm section, electric guitar and keys; the musicians wearing dark shades in solidarity with the singers – he will suddenly spring to life, wailing like a man several decades younger and demonstrating why he still leads the band after eight decades at the helm.
This show was split between the Blind Boys’ traditional gospel numbers and a collection of Christmas songs. And Carter repeatedly told the audience there was a difference between the two. Then the Blind Boys of Alabama proved it.
“White Christmas” was vocal jazz with a funk outro. Carter’s original “Merry Christmas I’m Having a Ball” was uncharacteristically secular. “Silent Night” proved even the Blind Boys get the blues sometimes. And “Go Tell it on the Mountain” was emphatic, outfitted with a walking bassline that pulled everyone up that hill.
With arms on one another’s shoulders for support and guidance, the Blind Boys of Alabama came on stage 10 minutes after the scheduled 7:30 start time. Decked out in red and black formal wear, they opened with “Walking in Jerusalem” before moving quickly into “Up above My Head, I Hear Music in the Air.”
The individual Blind Boys rose occasionally for their vocal showcases as they urged their followers to “Take Your Burdens to the Lord and Leave Them There,” promised “God Knows Everything” and declared “My Eyes Can See,” an utterly believable proposition given the musicians’ religious convictions.
And when they set “Amazing Grace” to the melody of “The House of the Rising Sun,” the Blind Boys offered musical salvation to the many seekers in the audience.
“I was blind but now I see,” they sang toward the end of a miraculous evening of magical music.