‘Dr. John & The Blind Boys of Alabama’ at George Mason University by Dr. Cheryl Paulhus

The ‘Dr. of funk’ left no doubt that, decades after being known as “The Night Tripper,” he can still stir up a mean musical brew. Dr. John got the party started Saturday night at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts with some foot-stompin’ help from his Lower 911 band & The Blind Boys of Alabama. These powerhouses joined forces for a rousing night of jazz, blues, and gospel music.

Dr. John gave a generous performance (two hours) in front of a full house. Since the late 1950s, the man otherwise known as Mac Rebennack has dispensed the funk, blues and roll of New Orleans music and added a flair all his own. Dr. John embodies the history, funk and mysticism of New Orleans past and present.

Dr. John and The Blind Boys of Alabama. Photo by Dino Perrucci.

Dr. John was dressed in a red pinstriped suit and a black fedora with gold trim. Dapper at 71, and although his growly, soulful voice may be rendered occasionally hoarse from a grueling pace, his dexterity behind the keyboard and the grand piano, showed no signs of slowing down at tonight’s performance.

Dr. John’s musicians got right to the heart of things opening with songs about joy, mourning, optimism, despair, revolutions and voodoo while showing their talents. Bassist David Barard added one more fine voice and trombonist Sarah Morrow blew up the stage. If that trombone could talk, and it did – it accentuated and insinuated all that comes with the swamps of Mississippi and the devilish alleys of human desires. John Fohl played a lot of hot licks on guitar.

The audience especially enjoyed “Such a Night” and “Right Place, Wrong Time.”

The incomparable Dr. John also brought a bit of New Orleans Gospel to George Mason disguised as an old time church revival, with the help of special guests, The Blind Boys of Alabama. The spirit exuded by the soulful energy of the four members of The Blind Boys was demonstrated when Jimmy Carter, the oldest blind boy asked the audience, “Do you feel me?” The crowd roared and stood on its feet!

From the minute they took the stage, original surviving member Jimmy Carter made sure the modest crowd knew they were about to go to church. No matter your faith, it’d be surprising if one person wasn’t moved.

From a rousing “People Get Ready” to a gospel-tinged “Spirit in the Sky,” their part of the set culminated in a revival-style “Free At Last,” with Carter’s handlers carefully lowering him off the stage and guiding him into the crowd to a roar of approval. He ambled up one aisle, across the center seats and up the other aisle to wild applause as the call and response rolled on. It was an inspirational moment that provided ample showing of what made both groups famous.

This quartet, some version and lineup of which has been performing for even longer than Dr. John has, rolled out a selection of gospel and gospel-related songs that every American should know. A robust version of “Spirit in the Sky”; the lyrics of the perennial “Amazing Grace” sung to the melody and tempo of “The House of the Rising Sun” among those songs.

Jimmy Carter brought plenty of vocal power out of reserve during “If I Had a Hammer” and Ben Harper’s “There Will Be a Light.” His breath control and endurance was that of an Olympic swimmer! The harmony of the Blind Boys was impeccable and inspirational! They created a range of sounds that was heavenly.

Clearly, we were all in the right place at the right time.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Dr. John is the living embodiment of New Orleans’ musical heritage. The Blind Boys of Alabama first raised their voices together over 70 years ago and are celebrated for their remarkable longevity, diverse repertoire, and a stunning collection of achievements: five Grammy Awards, a Gospel Music Hall of Fame induction, a National Endowment of the Arts Lifetime Achievement Award, and performances for two U.S. presidents. This fantastic concert was a joy for music fans of all ages.

The Blind Boys of Alabama. Photo by Markus Hanger.

Running Time: Two hours with no intermission.

Dr. John & The Lower 911 Band and The Blind Boys of Alabama: Spirituals to Funk, played for one-night only on Friday, November 3, 2012 at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts –  located on the Fairfax campus of George Mason University at the intersection of Braddock Road and Route 123, in Fairfax, VA.

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