Saturday, January 27, 2018

Live at the Belly Up: Blind Boys of Alabama, Preservation Hall Legacy Quintet, Irma Thomas (KPBS, aired January 26, 2018, filmed late 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night KPBS announced that at 10 p.m. — an hour earlier than usual — they were going to present a Live at the Belly Up episode that the moment they announced it became a “must-watch” item for both Charles and I: a show featuring the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Preservation Hall Legacy Quintet and New Orleans-born soul singer Irma Thomas. The Blind Boys of Alabama first came together in 1939 when they were students at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in Talladega, Alabama and worked almost exclusively in Black churches singing straight-ahead gospel until they were discovered at the Knoxville, Tennessee World’s Fair in 1982 and then got cast collectively as Oedipus in Steven Berkoff’s musical The Gospel at Colonus, a mash-up of Greek mythology and gospel music that proved unexpectedly popular in L.A. One of the current Blind Boys, Jimmy Carter (obviously not the same one!), has been with the group since its inception; another, Clarence Fountain, is in ill health but still sings with them whenever he can. The current lineup is Carter, Eric “Ricky” McKinnie, Ben Moore and Joey Williams; Williams also plays guitar for them (you could tell he was an official part of the group even though he sang on only one or two of the songs because he was wearing the same sort of cream-colored suit as the rest), and Carter and McKinnie were chosen as the spokespeople for the group in the obligatory interview segments. 

Their most recent album is a tribute to Blind Willie Johnson called God Don’t Ever Change, though they didn’t do any Johnson songs on Live at the Belly Up. Instead they did a set of gospel standards, mostly dealing with the soon-this-life-will-be-over-and-I’ll-be-with-God theme — not entirely inappropriate considering the group members’ advanced ages. (There’s a fascinating Wikipedia page on the group but it doesn’t go into detail about how long each of the current members have been with the Blind Boys or how they went about finding replacements when the original members retired, tried for solo careers, or died.) They began with, of all things, a song called “I Can See” — though previous PBS documentaries, including the quite beautiful film The Eyes of Me, have made it clear that blind people don’t mind using, or hearing other people use, the word “see” as an overall term for perception even if they can’t literally see — and then did a quite beautiful gospel ballad called “Almost Home.” Then they did a song called “God Knows Everything” that had something of the same feel as Mahalia Jackson’s “God Knows the Reason Why” — and after that the horn section of the Preservation Hall Legacy Band joined them for the gospel standard “Uncloudy Day” (a song I first heard from the Staple Singers, though they may not have been the first to record it; according to Wikipedia the song was actually written by Josiah Kelley Atwood in 1879, though the Staple Singers’ two versions, from 1956 and 1965, were the ones that established it in the gospel repertory and inspired Willie Nelson, of all people, to cover it in 1977) and a beautiful wailing version of “Amazing Grace” in which they kept the familiar words but tweaked the melody into a minor key, to quite moving effect. 

The Preservation Hall Legacy Quintet is an offshoot of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which was started in 1960 by a white couple, Alan Jaffe and his wife, who were running an art gallery in New Orleans and decided to assemble the survivors of the glory days of New Orleans jazz — though New Orleans revivalists had been putting bands together of the survivors at least since the rediscovery of trumpeter Bunk Johnson in 1940 and his first recording session in 1942. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band adopted an unusual solution to the problem of mortality among its members: when a member died he or she was quite likely to be replaced by a direct descendant. I noticed this on a previous PBS special on the parent group in which some of the listed personnel had the same last names as ones I’d heard on their previous performances and records (including a free concert they gave at San Francisco’s Stern Grove in 1972 which featured at least two musicians who’d recorded with Bunk Johnson, trombonist Jim Robinson and bassist Alcide “Slow Drag” Pavageau) but different first names, and I quickly caught on that the deceased musicians were being replaced by their kids, many of whom played the same instruments as their forebears. That show featured drummer Joseph Lastie, whose father Melvin Lastie had been the drummer of Cosimo Matassa’s great New Orleans studio band which backed Fats Domino and Little Richard, as well as lesser-known but almost equally great New Orleans R&B and rock artists like Huey “Piano” Smith. 

The Legacy Quintet was apparently founded in order to be able to send a band out on tour while the main personnel hold down the fort in New Orleans, and it’s not entirely a traditional New Orleans Dixieland ensemble; though there’s a trumpet and a trombone in the front line (and both the trumpet and trombone players also sing), their reedman (who looked younger than the rest) plays saxophone instead of clarinet — usually he plays a Sidney Bechet-style soprano sax during the traditional ensembles but also doubles on alto and tenor (and played a quite lovely tenor solo during “Amazing Grace”). Also they use only two rhythm instruments, a drummer and an electric keyboardist whose instrument is basically set up to sound like the Hammond B-3 organ/Leslie speaker combination Jimmy Smith made de rigueur for jazz organists; the camera didn’t get close enough to show whether this instruments has foot pedals for playing bass lines like a regular pipe or electronic organ, but it sounded like bass notes were coming from somewhere and that’s the most likely place. The Legacy Quintet played two songs, “Bourbon Street Parade” — which Louis Armstrong recorded with the Dukes of Dixieland, so the Legacy Quintet’s trumpeter not only sang on the song but did part of his vocal as an Armstrong impression — and “St. Louis Blues,” which began with a surprisingly cacophonous collective ensemble from which the melody gradually emerged. Then Irma Thomas came out and, alas, got to do only one song solo, “Love Don’t Change.” 

The Wikipedia page on her describes her as a contemporary of Aretha Franklin and Etta James, which will give you an idea of what she sounds like even though the Wikipedia writer ruefully notes that she “never experienced their level of commercial success.” Perhaps that was because she spent virtually all her recording career on small labels, many New Orleans-based, like Specialty, Ron and Minit; in the late 1960’s she cut some sides for Chess, which had broken Etta James as a major soul star, but she didn’t really reach beyond the Black R&B audience until Jim Jarmusch used one of her records in his 1985 film Down by Law. Irma Thomas’s Wikipedia page also notes that “as a teenager she sang with a Baptist church choir,” which of course is absolutely no surprise; I’ve been harping on this point for a long time, but I’ll say it again — one of the most pernicious and destructive myths of the music business is the one about how African-American singers in the R&B and soul styles had these “untrained voices.” B.S.: you do not sing as well as Aretha or Tina Turner or Patti LaBelle do for as long as they have without having had professional vocal training, and these great singers got their voices trained right by the choir directors in the churches where they started out as kids. The myth of the “untrained” Black soul voice is particularly destructive to white singers who grow up believing it and thinking that the only thing they have to do to sound like Aretha or whoever is to stand up in front of a band and scream. So many aspiring white singers like Bonnie Tyler and Stevie Nicks blew out their voices way too early because they didn’t realize that soul singers need vocal training just as much as opera singers do — and I’m convinced that even if Janis Joplin had lived her career wouldn’t have lasted much longer because her voice wouldn’t have withstood the punishment she inflicted on it. (When I heard the posthumously released version of Janis covering Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” my thought was, “Damn! She died just when she was starting to learn how to sing.”)

Irma Thomas didn’t get to show much of herself in this show — I suspect she had more to do in the complete Belly Up appearance at which this telecast was filmed, especially since this was part of a late 2017 concert tour at which all three acts received billing but Irma was on top. She just sang “Love Don’t Change” (the song’s next line is, “But people do,” which will give you an idea of what it’s about) and then joined the Blind Boys of Alabama and the Preservation Hall Legacy Quintet for a finale on the Pete Seeger-Lee Hays song “If I Had a Hammer.” Charles and I had just heard this song similarly gospel-ized on Sam Cooke’s live album from the Copacabaña nightclub in 1964. (Cooke’s live album from the Harlem Square Club in Miami in 1963, though not released until 1985, is generally considered better than the one from the Copa because, playing to a Black audience, he was considerably wilder — but his choice of material at the Copa was more adventurous, including “If I Had a Hammer” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.”) Charles joked, “This is what Pete Seeger would have sounded like if he’d been Black and gone to church,” and the artists on this Live at the Belly Up show (copyrighted 2018 but obviously filmed in late 2017) completed the process of “gospel-izing” the song and putting over its message of justice, freedom and love between all humanity at least as well as Seeger’s group The Weavers did and considerably better than the pop versions by Peter, Paul and Mary and Trini Lopez we got in the 1960’s.