At the House of Blues on Thursday night, the Blind Boys of Alabama and the Robert Randolph Family Band mingled the sacred and the secular, and the results were never less than divine.
Entering their seventh decade, the Blind Boys of Alabama are on a roll. Their previous album, 2001’s “Spirit of the Century” won a traditional soul gospel Grammy for its audacious use of jubilee gospel styles on contemporary pop tunes; this year’s “Higher Ground” (Real World) is just as strong an effort.
Nattily dressed in white high-collared suits and chocolate-brown shirts, Clarence Fountain, Jimmy Carter and George Scott are clearly enjoying their current popularity. Their shtick hasn’t changed: Carter is led through the crowd, demanding that the aud raise their hands, and Fountain mugs unabashedly, shaking his hips and reveling in the response. At one point all three of them are so overtaken by the music their backing band has to make sure they don’t dance off the stage.
The music is fresh and exciting. They keep one foot in tradition with the old-fashioned “Spirit in the Dark” and “Wade in the Water,” but it’s when they wander off the reservation that things get interesting. The 23rd Psalm manages somehow to walk alongside Funkadelic’s “You and Your Folks.” Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” becomes a sermon on the necessity of staying the course and, most impressively, “Amazing Grace” is laid over the melody and arrangement of the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun.” As Fountain told the crowd, “It sounds like rock ‘n’ roll, but it’s still gospel.”
Robert Randolph works the opposite way. The pedal steel player (who accompanied the Blind Boys for part of their set) takes the instrumental virtuosity and emotional intensity of the Keith Dominion Church’s “Sacred Steel” tradition and grafts it onto the jam-band format.
His just released Warner Bros. album “Live at the Wetlands” is an impressive introduction but barely scratches the surface of his talents.
The New Jersey native’s ambitions are made clear from his opening number, a jaw-dropping cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile.” But he doesn’t stop there. His set is a jubilant ride that visits the styles of Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Allman Brothers (the interplay of his quicksilver guitar with John Ginty’s surging Hammond organ on “The March”), the fierce improvisational freedom of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane and the joyous fire of the Campbell Brothers. Add to this his raucous showmanship — leaning into his instrument like a pedal steel Jerry Lee Lewis, jumping out from behind the guitar to dance — and you have one of the most exciting instrumentalists seen in quite some time.
His band, especially bassist Danyel Morgan, provides sympathetic and deeply funky backing. While they sometimes show the musical logorrhea that afflicts jam bands (most numbers pass the 10-minute mark), Randolph is such an arresting and inventive player it never seems indulgent. He readily follows the musicians’ 11th commandment: Thou shalt not bore.