Review: Blind Boys of Alabama featuring Ruthie Foster presented by Arts & Lectures of the University of California Santa Barbara

by Megan Waldrep

Exactly one year to the day of 2017’s canceled show due to the Thomas fire, the audience represented a community which had since experienced heartache and recovery and from several natural disasters. The mood in the room felt like a collected sigh of relief to finally hear the Blind Boys of Alabama sing uplifting gospel hymns with a lot of get-down Soul mixed in. 

But first, it was Ruthie Foster’s turn to blow us away. “I’m gonna take you to my front porch in Texas,” she said. Her voice hit all the notes that make your heart weep in a healing, spiritual way. They’re the kind of songs you have to take a deep breath after hearing. To try and explain her talent would be to undermine. 

Instead, here’s a clip from one of Ruthies past shows to give you an idea: 

And yes, other musicians know about Ruthie. Her collaborations include Bonny Raitt, the Allman Brothers, and Susan Tedeschi. Nominated three times for a Best Blues Album Grammy, her trophy case is probably full-to-the-gill with awards including seven Blues Music Awards, three Austin Music Awards, The Grand Prix du Disque award from the Académie Charles-Cros in France, a Living Blues Critics’ Award for Female Blues Artist of the Year. 

Ruthie Foster. Photo: ruthiefoster.com

After a short intermission, the Blind Boys were led out with each singer’s left hand raised to the shoulder of the singer in front. After being safely arranged in front of their seats, they take a bow. Jimmy Carter, the leader and the last original member of the group, takes charge of the mic and toying with the crowd that they better dance. “We don’t like to play to a conservative crowd,” he jokes. Translation: clap your hands and stomp your feet. 

Knowing the story of the band makes their music come alive even more. The history of the Blind Boys of Alabama dates back to the late 1930s when the original members first met while singing together as kids at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind. “These men were both raised as blind, African American males in the Deep South during the Jim Crow years, and they were sent to a school where the expectation for them was to one day make brooms or mops for a living,” Charles Driebe, the Blind Boys manager says on their website. “But they’ve transcended all that.”

Since inception, they’ve collected five Grammy Awards, a Lifetime Achievement Grammy, induction into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, performed at the White House for three different presidents, and sang at benefits for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Their style of gospel-with-a-twist spoke to audiences throughout the country and the world. This was even more evident in their album, Spirit of the Century released on Peter Gabriel’s label. Grammys came into their hands for their mix of heartfelt gospel music and songs by Tom Waits and the Rolling Stones. This also caught the ear of the series, The Wire whichchose their recreation of Wait’s “Way Down in the Hole” as the opening song of the show. Their famous musical friends with which they’ve worked include Stevie Wonder, Lou Reed, Prince, Taj Mahal, Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver), Willie Nelson, Mavis Staples, Ben Harper, Robert Randolph, Aaron Neville, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and Allen Toussaint.

The Blind Boys take a moment with Writer Megan Waldrep holding the Talkin’ Christmas album featuring Taj Mahal and their newest album, Almost Home

Backed by some seriously talented, young musicians who also shared the stage, the concert blended songs from albums strewn across their 75 year discography, including their Christmas Album entitled Talkin’ Christmas which they collaborated with Taj Mahal and their newest recording, Almost Home. Jimmy Carter gave a background story leading into each song. Laughs continued in the crowd as Mr. Carter reminded several times throughout the show that the two previously mentioned CD’s were available for purchase after the show. 

A piece of cultural history experienced through the voices of some of America’s greatest singers, the Blind Boys of Alabama and Ruthie Parker are artists to add to your bucket list.