If you didn’t have soul going into this show, you surely had soul coming out of it. On Saturday, November 22, The Blind Boys of Alabama, with special guest, Roger Street Friedman, put on a show that will long be remembered.
Long Island singer-songwriter Roger Street Friedman, and his four piece band began the show. Friedman’s style runs the gamut from folksy Americana and country to rock and soul with a bit of funk mixed in. With a total of four singers, the band’s sound was rich and full, and Friedman played selections from his 2014 debut, The Waiting Sky. Especially beautiful was Friedman’s “The Miracle is You,” about his wife’s pregnancy, and “Where Are You Tonight” with some nice electric guitar by Frank Ferrara. Friedman’s other backing musicians included bassist Matt Schneider, drummer Jim Toscano, and excellent violinist/vocalist Concetta Abbate, whose inclusion in the performance really added a whole new level. Friedman and band are on the way up – see them locally in Long Island while you have the chance.
The Blind Boys of Alabama were formed in 1944 when some students from the Alabama Institute for the Blind began singing together. Fast forward 70 years, and you’ll find a group that has put out numerous albums, performed thousands of shows, and won numerous awards. The band is made up of a core group of four blind singers, and five sighted musicians. The singers, Ricky McKinnie, Ben Moore, and Paul Beasley are led by original founding member Jimmy Carter, who served as MC for the show. The four singers in matching suits were led to the stage and seated in chairs across the center of the stage, with Carter in the middle. Singer-guitarist Joey Williams stood next to the four singers and, the other four musicians – Tracy Pierce – bass/vocals, Ray Ladson – rhythm guitar, Peter Levin – keyboards and Hammond organ, and Austin Moore on drums – lined up behind.
Once everyone had taken their place onstage, they launched into one of the most uplifting and inspirational performances I’ve ever seen (can I get an ‘amen’?). Starting with an impassioned version of “People Get Ready,” the band covered everything from gospel, country and soul, to Christmas songs (they recently released a Christmas album). The Blind Boys of Alabama had beautiful harmonies and sang with an incredible depth of feeling, so much so that periodically one singer would be so moved by the music and would jump out of his seat to sing out, or occasionally dance. One of the other musicians would help the singer back into his seat, just to have another singer jump up to sing.
Jimmy Carter, one of the original founding members, chatted up the audience, and towards the end of the show was led offstage into the audience where he shook hands and danced as the band played on. His “wrangler” had a hard time getting him back onstage as he seemed to enjoy mingling with the appreciative audience.
The entire performance was nothing short of spectacular, but certain songs stood out in particular. The Blind Boys did a beautiful but unusual version of “Amazing Grace” with guitar arpeggios that sounded like it had been blended with “House of the Rising Sun.” Another stunning performance was the song “There Will Never Be Any Peace (Until God is Seated at the Conference Table),” sung with incredible depth of feeling. The musicians were all top notch, and each had a chance to shine in solos during a long jam. Bassist Tracy Pierce, in particular, provided one of the best bass solos my companion and I had ever heard.
The responsive audience clapped, shouted and danced in the aisles. Despite the difficulty of getting the group on and off the stage, they did indeed return for an encore, a rousing bluesy version of “Go Tell it on The Mountain.” The singers were led off the stage to thunderous applause, as an uplifted audience left with music in their souls.
This performance was part of Landmark on Main Street’s Roots Rock series. Next show in the series is Joan Osborne on January 16th
Photographs by Steven Sandick