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CONCERT REVIEW The Blind Boys of Alabama
BENT NIGHTS Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Vern Hester
2012-02-28

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Three days after checking out The Blind Boys of Alabama at a recent show, I got into an ironic debate with an avowed atheist on the purpose of faith.

It had nothing to do with my disbelief in God ( I'm a Nichiren Buddhist ) or his disbelief in anything but everything to do with having spiritual belief in something. After speaking with several other lay Buddhists I was able to calm the argument yesterday with a quotation from Soka Gakkai President Diasaku Ikeda: "The purpose of faith and of religion is to make it possible for us to 'forge' our lives." By "forge," it's safe to say that Ikeda means to challenge, deepen, develop and uplift ourselves from the mundane. That even my nonbelieving friend agreed that this was the purpose was not a surprise.

The trap that we both fell into is the reality of what has really been going on regarding faith in the world and, especially, from outside of the LGBT community. I keep using the word "ironic" not only because of the timing of this show with this particular argument, or the fact that we suddenly have a variety of Republican presidential wannabes who are united in their desire to kill what few LGBT rights we have won. But also in the last two weeks those same conservatives feel their faith entitles them to interfere with the rights of women and their bodies; there was also the recent outrage that rightfully erupted when one of Chicago's highest religious leaders likened the LGBT community to a racist hate group.

Of course, the less "ironic" facet of all this is that faith, religion and sociology are not topics one would normally find in this deliriously queer entertainment column concerned with mayhem, debauchery, lusty behavior, and all manner of unrestrained madness displayed in every form of popular music. I'll be the first to admit that I'd be a failure as a Christian; I love sin way too much and I flat-out refuse to stop doing it. Believe it or not, this brings me back to The Blind Boys of Alabama and, well, "irony."

Amusingly enough, The Blind Boys performed at a special gospel buffet at The Venue, situated in—of all places—The Horseshoe Casino. Enough with the irony, though; the point was The Blind Boys brought it. A group founded at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind At Talladega Alabama in 1939, co-vocalist Jimmy Carter is the sole surviving founding member. ( Due to illness, Carter did not perform at this show but Ben Moore and Ricky McKinnon carried on. )

However, The Blind Boys are far from merely a long-running gospel group. The group has toured worldwide for decades; won four consecutive Grammys in as many years; and shared the stage with Mavis Staples, Ben Harper, Tom Petty, Peter Gabriel and Prince, among many others. Also, the Boys have been produced by Nashville's "hot" producer of the moment, Jamey Johnson; and have made an album of duets with the likes of Lou Reed and Randy Travis. It's obvious that they've gone beyond being just an institution.

Starting the set with a reverent "Down By the River," their second song—a deeply moving and intensely emotional reading of Norman Greenbaum's '70s hit "Spirit In the Sky"—revealed what the group was about and why it's meant so much to so many. Another set of personal friends ( happily Christian, straight, and married to each other and no, I don't argue with all of my friends ) who were sitting next to me pointed out that The Blind Boys mixed songs of faith with pop while spiritualizing everything they sang.

The original version of "Spirit In the Sky" always seemed inflated with hippie hot air to me and I never could take it seriously, but here it had an entirely new gravity. Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" was delivered here with such patient emotional heft that it felt like a spiritual from the Deep Delta South ( Mayfield was a Chicago musician ) while "I Saw the Light" and "Look Where He brought Me From" kicked the vibe in the room into overdrive.

A double take of the age old "Amazing Grace" came off like a double edged sword. There was first a measured, calm, assured reading that was so strong it raised the hairs on the back of this non-believer's neck and then a furious call-and-response old-school workout that had the audience on its feet and wrapped in rapture. I mentioned to one of my friends at the table that I regretted not bringing a tambourine—and I did not mean that as a crack. The way the Blind Boys served it up there was no way not to get carried away and drawn into the spirit.

That's the final irony on all of this. The Blind Boys of Alabama did not preach ( not a word from the Bible was quoted ) , lecture or divide. What they did do was uplift, spiritualize and embrace everyone in the room with such sincerity, heart and soul that even the hardest heart would have to be won over. You can argue about faith, religion and varieties all you want but the Blind Boys demonstrated what it is.

Heads up: For those with a yen for unabashed queer nancy-boy rave-up punk, Hunx and his Punx and Heavy Creme will play at the Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee Ave., on March 29. See www.doubledoor.com .


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