After stirring up folks in spiritual venues for decades, it looked like Five Blind Boys of Alabama were having a challenge at the Birchmere Thursday night as they opened with a medley of selections and even “Amazing Grace,” only produced polite smiles from the several hundred people gathered around tables.
But after earning five Grammy awards, Jimmy Carter, 78, the last standing original member of the legendary gospel quartet wasn’t about to play second fiddle to buffalo wings and other food items being served at the great Music hall in Alexandria.
After being helped off the stage Carter grabbed a cordless microphone and worked the crowded like a gospel preacher that wouldn’t quit. He literally played tug of war with the groups manager and the crowd rose from their chairs and started stomping their feet as she yelled out “I feel the fire! Like Jeremiah!,”
Founded in 1939 with singers from the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind, the group joined other quarters like the Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Gospel Keynotes, Sensational Nightingales, to become musical ambassadors who barnstormed across the country sporting colorful suits and street corner harmony.
And during segregation, groups like Blind Boys had to also deal with potential peril every time they stopped for gas, wanted something to eat or needed a place to sleep for the night. Ironically today, the group often sings for more majority white audiences than African Americans.
“When we started out we couldn’t sing for the white folk, but now we can,” said Carter whose group in the 1960’s took performed at Civil Rights benefits for Dr. Martin Luther King. “We found out that we could sing to them and then we found out they were with us all the time we just couldn’t give it to them.”
During the concert, the group seemed to reflect on its roots when they sang an uptempo song taken from King’s famous speech. “Free At last, Thank God A Mighty I’m Free At Last.”
Indeed the group is completely free in terms of musical diversity. Their new album, “Take the High Road,” is a collaborative effort they call “Country Gospel,” that features Jamey Johnson of the Oak Ridge Boys, Lee Ann Womack, Vince Gill, Willie Nelson and Hank Williams Jr.
At the Birchmere, the Blind Boys concluded with “I Saw the Light,” and one had to wonder if the good Lord somewhere tapping his toes, too.
Following the concert, Johnson said he was never worried about stirring up the crowd at the Birchmere. “You feel them out and once you get him in your hand, you take advantage of it,” he said with big smile.