9 p.m. Saturday, April 26
Tipitina's, 501 Napoleon Ave., 895-TIPS; www.tipitinas.com
Tickets $30 Jimmy Lee Carter remembers a very different New Orleans of a half-century ago. The New Orleans he knew was ruled by the Rev. Herman Brown, who moonlighted as the go-to black promoter in the city for gospel music. Carter's Blind Boys of Alabama worked this circuit. In New Orleans, Brown would package them with other gospel groups (the Pilgrim Travelers, the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, the Soul Stirrers), often on Sunday afternoons at the Booker T. Washington High School auditorium.
'We sold out every time," Carter recalls. 'We would stay at the Masons Hotel on Melpomene Street. They had great food there. I especially liked this hot sausage that he had. That would fill me up. That was my breakfast."
But for their many visits to and performances in New Orleans, the Blind Boys of Alabama had never recorded here or performed with New Orleans musicians behind them. Down in New Orleans is the first time the six-decades-old gospel group has truly tried to mine the riches of the Crescent City.
The result is a spiritual and vibrant common ground where traditional gospel takes on the classic, syncopated beat of the city. The New Orleans crew ranges from the iconic (producer and pianist Allen Toussaint) to the hard-working: a rhythm section of drummer Shannon Powell and bassist Roland Guerin, back-up keyboard help from David Torkanowsky, and powerful arrangements performed by the Hot 8 Brass Band. The opening track, the traditional gospel 'Free At Last," receives a jaunty rhythm, while Earl King's 'Make a Better World" pits the classic New Orleans R&B sound with the Blind Boys' six-part harmony. 'You Got to Move" benefits from a tambourine beat reminiscent of the Mardi Gras Indians, urged on by Preservation Hall banjoist Carl LeBlanc and Hot 8 member Bennie Pete's tuba.
Who knew gospel could sound so funky?
'We had never had a sound like that," says Carter, whose Grammy-winning group has enjoyed mainstream popularity in recent collaborations with artists such as Ben Harper and tours with Tom Petty. 'New Orleans has that Dixieland sound. [The musicians] made the sound different, but it sounded great. When they put the horns and all that stuff in there, it sounded great. After we got together and rehearsed, we could do just about anything we wanted to do. They kind of adjusted to us, and did a fantastic job.
'I can't explain it, but New Orleans had a certain feeling about it. You get a different vibration from that."
Carter says the idea was conceived by the group's producer, Chris Goldsmith, as a way to help provide some musical balm for a city still reeling from the devastation of the levee failures. The musicians recorded the album at Piety Street Studio in Bywater.
'I told the people, Katrina did a heckuva number on New Orleans," Carter says. 'I told them we couldn't take a hammer and a nail and build a house, but we could sing our music to them and bring hope back to them and encourage them to go on a little further. And I hope that's what we did."
The album features two of Mahalia Jackson's more familiar gospel tunes, 'If I Can Help Somebody" and 'How I Got Over." But clearly this is a group that shows it is happy to play with the new kids on the block, even after dominating the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Albums in recent years (2000-2005). Younger ears might notice them as the voices behind the cover of Tom Waits' 'Way Down in the Hole" for the theme song of HBO's cult hit The Wire.
'It helps us. We want the young people to get more involved in our music," Carter says of the group's recent youth movement. 'We thought by having people like Ben Harper, we can relate to these young people. We see more young people at our concerts than ever before. We're trying to bridge the generation gap.
'By collaborating with these other guys, I think we've gotten more young people to listen to us. We have more young fans now than we've ever had."