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Live review: Blind Boys, Allen Toussaint bring the spirit to UCLA

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It wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to hear that church attendance was down Sunday, at least among the hundreds of concert-goers who braved the rain on their pilgrimage to UCLA’s Royce Hall the night before.

After all, what’s left to atone for on Sunday morning after a spirit-infused, soul-enriching Saturday night spent soaking up the vibrant gospel sounds of the Blind Boys of Alabama and the sumptuous New Orleans R&B of songwriter, producer, pianist and singer Allen Toussaint?

These two stalwarts of different yet simpatico genres of American music spent a solid three hours in separate sets that preached to the choir of longtime fans and made converts of many initiates. By the end of the evening, all were up out of their seats, stamping feet and waving raised hands as senior Blind Boys singer Jimmy Carter made his way through the aisles to close the show on a note of unmitigated uplift.

The quartet, augmented on tour by sighted musicians, including guitarist Joey Williams and bassist Tracy Pierce,  has found a way to spread its message beyond the traditional gospel audience by cannily embracing the world of pop music and its purveyors. Look no further than the Blind Boys’ latest album, “Duets,” which culls the group’s collaborations over two decades with rock, pop and country stars including Lou Reed, Bonnie Raitt, Randy Travis, John Hammond, Ben Harper and Toots Hibbert.

That allows quintessential numbers from the gospel repertoire such as “Uncloudy Day” and “Amazing Grace” to sit comfortably alongside such spiritually minded pop world numbers as Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” (on which Williams did his best take on an otherworldly Jeff Beck guitar solo) and soul-reggae singer Hibbert’s “Perfect Peace.”

In their matching white suits with open-collar black shirts, the Blind Boys traded lead vocal duties, shifting song to song from Carter’s gates-of-heaven gentle calling to Bishop Billy Bowers’ soul-grabbing guttural power to Ben Moore’s sandpaper-gritty exhortations. Drummer Eric “Ricky” McKinnie joined in with the occasional harmony but contributed largely through his rock-solid yet nimble rhythmic support.

The five-time Grammy winners also gave a generous nod to their most recent studio collection, 2008’s “Down in New Orleans,” for which they set up camp in the Crescent City after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and were joined by many of the city’s favorite sons. “You Got to Move” found Powers on his feet,  shaking his massive limbs to the music, the very embodiment of the temporal yielding control to the spiritual.

Allen It’s often said that the Lord works in mysterious ways, and the big mystery Saturday night was why there was no collaboration between the Blind Boys and Toussaint, the group’s guest on two of the tracks on “Down in New Orleans.”

Toussaint, the creative mastermind behind such early R&B and rock hits as Lee Dorsey’s “Working in a Coal Mine,” Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-in-Law,” Al Hirt’s “Java” and the Rolling Stones’ “Fortune Teller,” brought an earthy elegance to the first half of the program, for which the only accompaniment was his own piano playing.

That might have been cause for disappointment for anyone yearning for the full-bodied instrumental arrangements for which Toussaint is rightly treasured. But because he is one of the masters of New Orleans-style piano playing in the tradition of Professor Longhair, James Booker and Tuts Washington, it turned into a feast of unprepossessing keyboard wizardry.

His skills as both composer and arranger were in full force as he sat at the Steinway grand, impeccably stylish in a lush green velvet paisley jacket and black slacks, his head full of tight, thick curls the color of ashes.

Toussaint wrapped his genteel, honeysuckle drawl around emotionally vulnerable professions of love such as “With You in Mind” and “You Are Just a Song,” then turned delightfully wicked in “Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley” and another of his songs K-Doe recorded, “A Certain Girl.”

He also proved to be a master raconteur, taking listeners on an extended, richly detailed journey to the past worthy of Springsteen after delivering “Southern Nights,” a song he said was inspired by his family’s regular weekend trips from New Orleans to visit relatives in Louisiana’s more rural regions.

His relentlessly upbeat outlook echoed the Blind Boys’ insistence on never losing sight of the good as the way through whatever bad things life throws our way. “After Katrina,” Toussaint noted,” a lot of people had to leave New Orleans, and everyone thought that was bad. But it’s the reason I’m here tonight, so I have to be thankful.”

How about a big “Amen!” to that?

-- Randy Lewis

Top photo: Bishop Billy Bowers, left, Jimmy Carter, Ben Moore and guitarist Joey Williams of the gospel group Blind Boys of Alabama; bottom: Allen Toussaint. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

 
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