Last night saw the conclusion of the SFJAZZ 30th Annual San Francisco Jazz Festival in Herbst Theatre. As Executive Artistic Director Randall Kline observed in introducing the Blind Boys of Alabama, the show would also mark the conclusion of a long-standing relationship between SFJAZZ and Herbst, since next month the new SFJAZZ Center, located only a few blocks further south on Franklin Street, will become the new SFJAZZ home. In this period of transition, it seemed appropriate to have the Blind Boys return to give their fifth holiday gospel concert, celebrating the coming of a new year and the coming of the SFJAZZ Center in a single event.
As their Wikipedia entry observes, the Blind Boys are one of the few groups to have moved their music from black church audiences to the general public in a big way. Instrumental in that transition was their appearance in The Gospel at Colonus, the joint project of composer Bob Telson and author Lee Breuer to recast Sophocles’ “Oedipus at Colonus” as a gospel service. The play begins with the blinded Oedipus coming to Colonus after his self-exile from Thebes, and the casting of a group of blind singers to play his role was a theatrical coup.
With the recognition that came with The Gospel at Colonus, the Blind Boys were able to expand their scope to wider audiences around the world; and with that expansion of scope came an expansion of repertoire. One of the best known of those expansions was their recording of Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole,” which was picked up by David Simon to use as the theme song for the first season of The Wire on HBO. They performed “Way Down in the Hole” last night, along with Norman Greenbaum’s psychedelic rock classic “Spirit in the Sky.”
The most interesting “expansion” piece, however, involved their approach to “Amazing Grace.” Rather than singing the traditional Southern pentatonic hymn tune, they set the words to the music for “The House of the Rising Sun” (another classic from the psychedelic rock days, this time from The Animals). Those who wonder about setting the words of a hymn to a folk song about a whorehouse in New Orleans should be reminded that the appropriation of secular music for sacred purposes can probably be traced back to Pope Gregory I (if not further). Indeed, when he was preparing his own new hymnal, Martin Luther was very fond of secular songs; and, according to Albert Schweitzer’s study of the life and music of Johann Sebastian Bach, Luther was known to have remarked that the Devil could not keep all of the good tunes to himself.
Last night the Devil was kept “way down in the hole” during about 90 minutes of joyous harmonizing, punctuated by unrestrained solo takes. Four of the selections, along with the encore, were presented as the Christmas offerings. The most memorable of these was probably an unabashedly gospel take on “White Christmas” with only the slightest trace of Irving Berlin evident behind the flood of melismatic improvising. The three blind singers, Jimmy Carter, Ben Moore, and Eric “Ricky” McKinnie, got melody support from guitarist (and musical director) Joey Williams, who also added to the vocals. Rhythm was provided by Peter Levin on keyboards, Tracy Pierce on bass guitar, and Austin Moore on drums.
We can only hope that the entry to the new SFJAZZ Center will be as joyous as last night’s departure from Herbst.