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police & fire

Blind Boys of Alabama fill Yo La Tengo, Exene, My Morning Jacket and others with the spirit

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

Amazing moments come along now and then — but Alice Tully Hall offered a series of them, as the Blind Boys of Alabama shared the stage with Yo La Tengo, Lambchop, Yim (My Morning Jacket) Yames and Exene Cervenka.

Unofficial Blind Boys leader, founder Jimmy Carter

The combinations for the “Spirit in the Dark” performance Monday night were remarkable — and accessible. All of the music was steeped in gospel, some of it lush and languid, some of it funky, and some of it raucous and soaring, Baptist-style, particularly when the members of the Sun Ra brass section, decked out in their glittery Egyptian finest and led by 86-year-old Marshall Allen, were onstage.

The venue offered Yames the perfect pulpit for his song “Dear God” (apologies to Andy Patridge), highlighted by his quirky yodel.

There was even a breath snatcher: Punk goddess Exene , backed by the Blind Boys, sweetly sang “A Change Is Gonna Come.” That came after they harmonized on Lou Reed’s “Jesus,” prompting silently excited gestures from some of New York’s alt rock cognescenti.

Speaking of alt, one of the genre’s greatest standard bearers, Yo La Tengo, was the de facto house band for the first half of the show. Members of the Blind Boys own outfit played the second, which featured a couple of the vocal group’s more familiar tunes.

They jumped right out of the break with Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions’ cross-over spiritual, “People Get Ready,” inspired by Martin Luther King’s August 1963 march on Washington, the site of his “I Have a Dream” speech.

The Blind Boys themselves were arranged stage left in a row of chairs, wearing their familiar black satin jackets. When their performance turns came, they walked out single-file, each with a hand on the other’s shoulder, and left the stage the same way (The three main vocalists and their drummer are blind; two of the founding members died within the past five years).

Wise not to miss an opportunity, the Blind Boys got contemporary with Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole,” the theme song from “The Wire,” which had lead vocalist and found member Jimmy Carter on his feet, stomping and scatting, urging the polite audience to make their own joyous noise, then hitting and holding a high note, his head thrown back, as the crowd finally erupted.

The full band

It wouldn’t be long before many were dancing in the aisles. When’s the last time that happened at Alice Tully?

As the backups slid into “House of the Rising Sun,” the congregants gathered under the tent silently nodded at one another, ready for the familar hoodoo holler from New Orleans. But the Blind Boys brought a twist: They stripped the original lyrics and replaced them with “Amazing Grace.” And it worked, as Carter, Ben Moore, and the plump, pixie-ish Bishop Billy Bowers traded verses.

To see Lambchop lead man Kurt Wagner (with his David Byrne-cum-Joe Cocker-like twitches) or Exene in her cowboy boots or even Yo La Tengo in a concert hall, where you can only enter between songs and barely speak in but a whisper, was odd. Yet YLT brought rich color to Wagner’s antics, and he fired up their decidedly understated approach. Except for some feedback — no doubt the result of so many handheld and wired microphones onstage — the variety of sound filled the house nicely.

As did, of course, the river-deep, soulful voices of the Blind Boys — men you can rightfully call living legends, who laid the foundation for the soul, R&B and rock that rolled through generations beginning with their first single, “I Can See Everybody’s Mother But Mine” — in 1948.

They’d gotten together nearly a decade earlier and, refusing to compromise their pure gospel style, struggled amid the waves of popular music that often owed inspiration to them.

Then, in 1983, came “The Gospel at Colonus,” an Obie-award winning play that culled a new, enthusiastic audience. An appearance at the White House followed, as did a Lifetime Grammy Achivement Award.


Although the concept of Monday night’s performance was presented as New York-funky-offbeat, it wasn’t a stretch for the Blind Boys. A roster of musicians they’ve performed and recorded with becomes a scroll: Ben Harper, Aaron Neville, Mavis Staples, Tom Petty, John Fogerty, Peter Gabriel, Bonnie Raitt, Randy Travis, k.d. lang, Charlie Musselwhite, Susan Tedeschi, Solomon Burke, Marty Stuart, and Taj Mahal, as well as a performer who jumped on the Hollywood Knitting Factory’s stage to accompany them two years ago: Prince.

Who wouldn’t want a backup vocal crew like them?

And what type of star-studded show would it have been without bringing the entire gang onstage for the stopper, “If I Had a Hammer”? Ira Kaplan seemed the most anxious of the vocalists who each took a verse, while Wagner and Yames ripped into theirs.

The Blind Boys have two shows left in the Lincoln Center run, including Wednesday, when the guests will include Allison Moorer (still best known as Shelby Lynne’s sister and Steve Earle’s wife, but that’s soon to change); Ralph Stanley, the Yonder Mountain String Band, and members of Asleep at the Wheel.

Members of the Sun Ra Arkestra brass section

Then comes the sold-out “Blind Boys Family Revival” on Friday, with (please sit down):
Aaron Neville
Joan Osborne
John Hammond
Charlie Musselwhite
Dan Zanes
Hot 8 Brass Band

(With more performers to be announced.)

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