With insightful ingenuity, vibrant views and a powerful perspective, the motivational Blind Boys Of Alabama guide us with amazing grace through a visionary performance to be seen by all the senses.
As passionately proclaimed by current vocalist and Road Business Manager Eric ‘Ricky’ McKinnie himself, “The boys are back in town”; and the boys will most certainly arrive with ardour in Australia for the Port Fairy Folk Festival and Brunswick Music Festival, among other notable performances, in 2020.
With the traditional interpretation of the word ‘Gospel’ translating to ‘Good News’, there is an immense resonance of faith amid all of the Blind Boys’ songs; and it is admirable that the band has consistently chosen faith above all other commercial temptations; while still remaining a dominant success. As Ricky concurs, “Yes; I feel like when people can see the good in you and see how your music is relevant throughout the years”, that he and the band are encouraging others to adopt their trust in God as well.
With a chequered configuration of various members throughout the years, the Boys have been collectively performing since the beginning of World War II; with several astounding transitions witnessed over the generations; both musically and historically. As Ricky recounts, “It’s been an amazing career; and I think…every step of the career…I think I’d just leave it like it is.”
One of the most encouraging elements of the band is their openness to embrace the condition of blindness, and to expose disability in a positive manner; actually interweaving it into their performance as a whole. Without sight itself, the Boys obviously have a profound insight into musicality; and seem to display an augmented sense of emotional engagement with the music, enabling each member to completely unite with the messages and narratives conveyed. Ricky philosophises “Well…one thing we have learned is that what’s from the heart reaches the heart”; which is an obvious result of each of the Boys’ emotive performances.
Having developed acute methods by which to gauge audience response and the harmoniousness of the present atmosphere, the Boys would undoubtedly have sensed the fervour of Barack and Michelle Obama grooving and manoeuvring appreciatively to their White House performance; and Ricky reflects “You can definitely feel the vibe from the audience when the audience responds…you can definitely tell when you’re moving somebody.” Quite justifiably, Ricky recalls that performing for the President of the United States “was one of the greatest experiences that we could have had…it was a pleasure and a privilege to be able to do that”.
Boasting an impressive spectrum of accolades, including five Grammy Awards, Ricky imparts that “the one that I’m most proud of is the Lifetime Achievement Award that was given by the National Academy Of Arts; but that’s because when you are a black, blind quartet…and your peers can appreciate your music…a lifetime achievement award is one of the highest awards you can get; and it really tells it has all been worthwhile; and that’s the one that I really think a lot of”.
With similarly esteemed co-collaborators including stellar names such as Chrissie Hinde, Peter Gabriel, Bonnie Raitt and, of course, the superb Willie Nelson, Ricky compliments ”we appreciate each and every one of them; everybody brings something different to the table – we would do it with every one of them one more time”. According to Ricky, the Boys’ rewarding musical partnership with Willie Nelson “was great – we had opportunities to sing a song This Old Bible, and I tell you what – it was a great experience”.
When we look at the evolution of Southern Gospel music, from the foundational Jazz age of Jelly Roll Morton; Freddie Keppard; Fats Waller; infused through Thomas Dorsey’s melange of jazz, blues and Gospel messages, the Boys incorporate such a rich cultural heritage into their genre. Ricky agrees that the Southern style is a constant which he would like to resound in the Boys’ music for some time, explaining “yes, I started the non-profit organisation that’s called the Traditions Cultural Arts, and the goal is to preserve and promote legendary music; and that’s what it’s all about…we want that to go on and on; for people to be able to respect; be able to appreciate the legendary music.”
Sharing a reciprocal relationship across many genres, the Boys note that many contemporary artists are beginning to extract elements from the valuable resource of Gospel music. As Ricky observes, “Well, they started a long time ago…RAP music came from really from what the Gospel people would have called Jubilee; and we were singing Jubilee long before there was RAP music; so it all goes hand in hand.”
With an aim to produce and project messages of love, tradition, and unity, Blind Boys Of Alabama “just sing Gospel music to make people feel good”.
When & Where: Port Fairy Music Festival, Port Fairy – March 6-9 & Theatre Royal, Castlemaine – March 11.
Written by Renée N. Abbott