It’s not every day that a musical legend graces the University of Maine with a performance, so Wednesday night was special at the Collins Center for the Arts when Dr. John and the Blind Boys of Alabama took the stage for “Spirituals to Funk.”
Dr. John is a five-time Grammy winner whose 1973 song, “Right Place Wrong Time,” was a top-20 hit in the United States. His most recent album, “Locked Down,” released earlier this year, was well-received by publications like Rolling Stone and Pitchfork. He was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.
The Blind Boys of Alabama, who formed way back in 1939, have also won five Grammys, including a Lifetime Achievement award in 2009. They were also invited to the White House by President Bill Clinton, President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama.
Fans of all ages packed the CCA, the older crowd likely lured by the opportunity to hear one of the greats they listened to “back in the day” and the younger attendees possibly drawn in by the aforementioned positive reviews of “Locked Down” or Dr. John’s association with Black Keys lead singer Dan Auerbach, who was heavily involved in the production and recording of the album.
The backing band, consisting of David Barard on bass, John Fohl on guitar, Raymond Weber on drums and Sarah Morrow on trombone, took the stage and started playing. Weber introduced Dr. John, who then walked onto stage with a reserved swagger, wearing a bold purple suit, sunglasses, gold chains and a fedora, strutting with rhythm, and a cane adorned with feathers and ribbons.
From the get-go, Dr. John’s classic often-growled vocals sounded almost as fresh as they did when he was a much younger man. Dr. John spent most of the night sandwiched between an organ and a piano, turning around to play whichever instrument was needed.
Dr. John played many songs from his newest album, starting with “Getaway,” during which he and the backing band exceptionally recreate the vibe of the jaunty studio version. Dr. John played the organ during the song, and when it was time for the guitar solo, he walked slowly toward his guitar and seemingly almost missed his cue, but he was in time and on fire.
He returned to the organ to play “Revolution” and “Big Shot,” both from his new album. In the second half of the latter song, Morrow walked to center stage to play a riveting trombone solo that received a positive reception from the audience.
Dr. John turned to the piano and after the first few notes, the crowd erupted as they recognized them as the intro to his most popular song, “Right Place Wrong Time.” Fohl played an explosive guitar solo that bolstered the crowd’s enthusiasm even more.
After performing “Such a Night,” Dr. John spoke directly to the audience for the first time, saying, “Now I have the extreme pleasure of bringing out the Blind Boys of Alabama.” Dr. John remained on stage and played as part of the backing band.
The Blind Boys of Alabama, whose 74-year career spans longer than Dr. John’s 71-year life, currently consists of Ben Moore, Eric “Ricky” McKinnie and founding member Jimmy Carter, as well as Joey Williams, who is not blind but serves as singer and musical director.
The Blind Boys, all of whom are in their mid-80s, were guided onto stage by Williams and a tour staff member. Chairs were set up for each of them.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been to Maine, I mean a while, and it’s cold up here,” Carter said.
He spoke to the crowd a bit longer before wrapping up. “[The Blind Boys] don’t like to sing to a conservative crowd,” Carter said. “They like a noisy crowd.”
During their first song, “People Get Ready,” the singers would alternate on lead vocals while the others provided backing harmonies. Each member brought a different vocal style to the table, whether it was a high-pitched soul sound or a deeper gospel vibe.
The Blind Boys played extended versions of a lot of songs because they got so into the performance and were big on audience interaction.
They chanted, “Do you feel me?” again and again, then said, “Audience? I like y’all. Audience? I love y’all!” which elicited a rowdy crowd reaction.
The Blind Boys then performed an interesting take on the gospel classic, “Amazing Grace,” which they sang over the melody of “House of the Rising Sun,” a traditional folk song most famously recorded by The Animals in 1964.
Carter introduced their next song by saying, “This is a song everybody can participate in. You have to listen accordingly.”
They spent most of the song by trying to get the crowd excited, with Carter chanting, “I can’t see you / I need to hear you” and “Are you standing up?”
The crowd was standing and as enthusiastic as a CCA crowd has been in a long time. Everybody was clapping and dancing and that only increased when Carter, guided by Williams, walked into the crowd and danced and jumped with people in the first row for a few minutes. When the song ended, the Blind Boys left the stage to loud applause.
Dr. John then performed more songs with the backing band, starting with “Locked Down,” from the album of the same name.
He turned to the piano for “Candy” and “Those Lonely Nights.” During the latter, he introduced each band member and gave them an opportunity to solo. Then, the Blind Boys returned to the stage for a few more songs.
Their first song was a slinky R&B version of “When The Saints Go Marching In” with vocals from the Blind Boys, Dr. John and Barard.
For the final number of the evening, the Blind Boys sang “Glory Hallelujah,” which again turned into an extended performance that had the crowd on its feet. Towards the song’s end, the Blind Boys walked off the stage, waving and looking like they really did not want to leave. Dr. John left next, with the same funky strut he walked in with. After the band played out the song and thanked the audience, they also left.
The people most reluctant to leave were the attendees, who didn’t want one of the best performances the building has seen in a long time to come to an end. It’s safe to say that Dr. John and The Blind Boys of Alabama, who do not like singing to “conservative crowds,” left satisfied as well.