Blind Boys of Alabama are all about good times
"When you come to a Blind Boys concert, if you come feeling sad, leave feeling glad," band member Eric "Ricky" McKinnie told The Eagle during a recent telephone interview. "[We] want you to be able to sing along, and if you feel like dancing, dance, and if you feel like clapping your hands, clap your hands. We just want you to have a good time."
But the gospel virtuosos' message-driven harmonies acquire a special resonance around the holidays, when the group typically sings some songs from its Christmas records: "Go Tell It on the Mountain," which won the best traditional soul gospel album Grammy award in 2003, and "Talkin' Christmas!," which was released in 2014. Joined by the Preservation Hall Legacy Horns, the Blind Boys will honor this tradition at The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on Sunday night, mixing in hits from the band's other albums during its 70-plus year history, too.
The band continues to add to that repertoire. "Let My Mother Live," a song off of its most recent album, "Almost Home" (2017), was just nominated for a Grammy. It was the group's 10th such nomination and second since winning the Grammys' 2009 lifetime achievement award. Another one of the record's tracks, "Pray for Peace," has also received acclaim.
"'Pray For Peace'...rides a fat, syncopated groove blending blues, funk, and gospel. It's a clear-eyed assessment of both the progress that's been made since the civil rights movement's heyday and the distance still left to go," writes Jim Allen for NPR.
In divisive times, McKinnie knows the group's music can provide a measure of hope, as it has during many turbulent moments in the country's history. He also believes religion is part of the solution.
"We have a song called 'Pray for Peace,' and it's a good song that's being played a lot...but we also sing a song [on past album 'I'll Find a Way'] that says...there won't be any peace until God is seated at the conference table," said McKinnie, who began playing with the band nearly three decades ago.
Whether you believe in a higher power, it's undeniable that the Blind Boys' music has reached some of the powers-that-be over the years. McKinnie said the group's performances for Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama were the most memorable to him. Before McKinnie joined the band, the Blind Boys would also play at events with Martin Luther King, Jr.
Two of the group's original members are alive today — Jimmy Carter, who still tours, and Clarence Fountain, who contributed to the latest album but doesn't travel much anymore. They met at Alabama's Talladega Institute for the Negro Deaf and Blind, forming the group in 1939. They didn't land their first major gig until 1944, and recording commenced in 1948. The latest album examines, among other things, their navigation of the Jim Crow South during that time.
Carter, McKinnie, Joey Williams, Ben Moore and Paul Beasley make up the band's current iteration, though as many 11 musicians (including the Preservation Hall Legacy Horns) will take the stage in Great Barrington on Sunday. Gospel music's sound has changed recently, according to McKinnie, who, like some of the others appearing, is blind. (The onset of glaucoma at 23 caused him to lose his eyesight.) He called the genre more "mainstream" now with different instrumentation than in the past, but it hasn't deviated in one important way.
"Whatever we do is still straight from the heart," he said.
In other words, they still spread the gospel.
"Gospel music, what makes it different is that [we sing] message songs, songs that [are] designed to talk to just the spirit of a man in a different type of way. We don't go to preach to people, but we do tell them about Jesus," McKinnie said.
The percussionist and vocalist had his own message for people to go tell around the Berkshires.
"Don't miss it when the Boys are back in town," he said.
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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