Blind Boys of Alabama/Irma Thomas at Carolina Theatre in Durham, NC
Finding a church with both Irma Thomas and The Five Blind Boys of Alabama presiding over the services on the same evening is enough to make you feel like you’d died and gone to heaven. But this particular corner of paradise had an a earthly base. Durham, NC’s Carolina Theatre served as a worship hall/New Orleans getdown center Monday night when Thomas and the Blind Boys shared a bill backed by the brassy, percussive wallop of the Preservation Hall Legacy Quintet. The messages were different, seperate but equal in their intensity. The Blind Boys brought Jesus with them, as always, and Thomas brought her fiery, soulful spunk that hasn’t diminshed over her six decades in the biz.
The Legacy Quintet was a pleasant surprise. Various incarnations of the Pres Hall band have been road-dawggin’ it ’round these parts for years, all featuring stellar musicians, but the merch they were peddling often seemed like the same old “Saints Go Marchin’ In” rehash. The Quintet relied on some old New Orleans chestnuts as well, but presented in such a way that they sounded fresh and more sophisticated than the usual rat-a-tat Dixieland fare. “Hindustan” had a funker edge with the help of organist Chris Vaught and the percussive second line drive of drummer Joe Lastie.
“This one comes from the choich,” trumpter Gregg Stafford announced in his thick New Orleans patois, as the band kicked off a rousing renditon of “Just A Little While To Stay Here” fit for second linin’ back from the cemetery after a Big Easy funeral, Stafford rippin’ it up like Louis Armstong on his brassy solos.
Although trombonist Freddie Lonmzo looked like a mild-mannered insurance salesman, he literally got down and rolled around on “Basin Street Blues,” unwinding like a run-down windup toy ’till he lay flat on the stage, bleating piteously till he finally summoned the air and strength to inflate himself and stand upright again with gassy, brassy blatts.
The band stayed in the back of the stage, the front dominated by four empty chairs with towels draped across the backs. After riping through a version of “Bourbon Street Parade” that had drummer Lastie working like Gene Krupa and saxophonist Calvin Johnson wailing like a lost soul on judgement day, the owners of those chairs filed out onstage, hands on each other’s shoulders. Current Blind Boys lead singer Jimmy Carter couldn’t wait to get started, hopping up and down, big grin on his face as he waited for the other members of his crew to get seated.
Carter led off with the title cut from the group’s latest, Almost Home, telling his own story in a crusty testimonial that acknowledges God as his constant companion over the years. “Now you sayin somethin,'” guitarist Joey Williams tells him as he finishes his moving testamonial.
“God’s doing everything even blind eyes can see,” Carter says, introducing “I Can See,” also from the new record. At 88, he’s still a mesmerizing performer with a powerful voice he uses like a whip to get call-and-response action going. It’s easy to see where the soul men got it from. Carter screams like a cranky panther, and can preach with enough fire and glory to have men of the cloth and soul men alike scurrying for cover. “One more song from the record and that will be that,” Carter says, dusting his hands together dismissively.
“God Knows Everything” has former Gospel Keynote Paul Beasley and guitarist Williams singing close family-style harmony backed by the Legacy band’s drummer, Lastie. Williams unleashes his heavenly falsetto, stunning the crowd with his soaring flight into the stratosphere. The rest of the Legacy Band come out as the backup band for the rest of the show, as the Blind Boys rip out a version of “Uncloudy Day” so funky it gets them struttin’ in place.
Carter leads a version of “I’ll Fly Away” that thunders along brassily with the Legacy band drivin’ it hard, but still treating it like the hymn it is and not a circus parade.
Irma Thomas did a gospel album, Walk Around Heaven, in ’83, but has always refused to perform gospel in her show, saying it sends a mixed message. She kept it seperate tonight as well, delivering soulful cuts from her back catalog, opening with ’01’s “Love Don’t Change.” At 76, Thomas can still sing her songs in the same keys she recorded them in with the same fire and glory. “I wrote this when I was 23 and I was pissed!” she says, introducing ’64’s “I Wish Someone Would Care.” The Legacy band is as solid as a Stax session band and Thomas sounds as perky and as pissed as when she cut it over half a century ago.
The only thing that’s changed about Thomas is the way she currently bills herself, as the Queen of Heart and Soul, as opposed to her former title as Soul Queen of New Orleans. Thomas has said that her drummer, “for lack of not knowing what to call me, decided to call me the soul queen of New Orleans, then in 1989 the City of New Orleans officially gave me that name.” Like Bettye Lavette, she balks at being lumped in the soul category. “The word soul is used to categorize when it really shouldn’t be – because soul is something that you feel, and you can feel that in any category,” she told me in a 2001 interview for her appearance at the Bull Durham Blues Fest. “Anything you’re doing, anything you’re singing, there has to be some soul involved or you wouldn’t have the love to do it. That word soul is really used too loosely as far as categorizing something It’s just a feeling that you have because it’s a passion of yours and it a part of your soul.”
Her passion and a good chunk of her soul are laid bare on ’88’s “You Dont Know Nothin’ Bout Love,” backed by guitarist Williams’ soulful chiming and the Legacy band’s rhythm section. Irma’s voice is an incredible intrument she wields masterfully, not indulging in any histronics, just standing flat-footed and delivering the goods with power and grace, effortlessly filling up the room. Her between song patter is about the value of relationships, using her own 42-year marriage to husband/manager Emile Jackson. “Took me three tries,” she admits, adding that in a marriage you sometimes have to agree to disagree. “If things still go wrong, remember that lawyers’ll get into it,” she says, “so it might be cheaper to keep her.”
That brings up the finale, ’59’s “You Can Have My Husband, (But Please Don’t Mess With My Man)”. Thomas has never sounded stronger, her “Yeah Yeah Yeah’s” on the chorus bouncing off the back walls like thunderclaps. The band lets it all hang out on this one, trombonist Lonzo honkin’ as frantically as an LA freeway driver stuck in traffic as Williams lays in some twangy honky-tonk licks ’till drummer Lastie slaps ’em all back in the groove. “No matter how good you look or sound, you’re only as good as your backup band,” Thomas acknowledges, introducing all the Legacy band players by name, “in case somebody might hear ’em and want to book ’em for a gig.”
Thomas is a hard act to follow, but letting her stay out with the returning Blind Boys solves that problem as the ensemble bangs out a lusty version of “If I Had A Hammer,” the title cut from the Blind Boys’ ’05 release.
That’s it. The lights come up and the Boys troop off stage, linked at the shoulder, waving back at the cheeering crowd. There’s no need for an encore. The Boys and Irma have left behind enough to satisfy any palate, a soulful gospel feast that satisfies body and soul – ’til the next time.