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O.C. Music Review : Five Blind Boys of Alabama Rest Laurels on Rock of Ages

August 22, 1995|JON MATSUMOTO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Countless gospel-rooted singers, from Sam Cooke to Whitney Houston, have found fame and fortune in the secular world of rock 'n' soul. But for the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, God has always come before commerce. In its 56-year history, this enduring and tirelessly itinerant gospel group has yet to waver from its spiritual path.

A Blind Boys concert today can still serve as a compelling reminder of what might have been had these gifted performers opted for a shot at pop success when black music first began to move into the mainstream some 40 years ago. Given the right material, Top 40 stardom could very well have been within their grasp.

During the first of two outdoor shows Saturday night at the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library, the Blind Boys proved that they really have been blessed with a seemingly eternal gift for singing both gritty and gorgeous gospel.

Forget about the Rolling Stones still rocking into their 50s. How about the core of the Blind Boys--which includes founding members Clarence Fountain, Jimmy Carter and George Scott--still shouting soulfully and convincingly into the heavens as they advance well into their 60s and 70s?

Truth be told, the eldest members of the Blind Boys (the group also included two other singers, two guitarists, a bass player and a drummer) looked less than robust when they first walked onstage. They entered with the feeble if determined appearances of veteran performers who--against their better judgment--just couldn't resist one more curtain call.

It soon became apparent that there was nothing lackluster about their vocal abilities or their spirit. Playing numerous selections from their new live album, "I Brought Him With Me," the singers quickly locked into a taut and inspired groove. Particularly impressive was a mesmerizing a cappella rendition of "Listen to the Lambs," in which the Blind Boys' vocals ebbed and flowed in magical unison.

Most numbers were simply rousing crowd-pleasers. "Do Lord" had the audience clapping enthusiastically to the song's bouncy beat and celebratory spirit.

Even when the tempo subsided, as it did for the spiritual "Better All the Time," the group still managed to have a galvanizing effect thanks to Fountain's impassioned vocal histrionics. Soul icon Al Green had nothing on Fountain when the Blind Boy front man started screeching and howling in his still potent, gravelly voice. Fountain's earthy singing contrasted nicely with the rest of the group's silky harmonies.

The Blind Boys also revealed themselves to be very likable showmen. Fountain is a bit like Little Richard--one minute praising the Lord like a Southern preacher, the next hamming it up with a humorous comment and an exaggerated pose. When he flashed his mischievous Cheshire cat smile while placing his hand on his out-thrust hip, you believed that Fountain could have been a '50s-era rock 'n' roll star.

Despite his ample charisma, Fountain was nearly upstaged by Carter. The slightly built singer may have looked frail, but he was no pushover. During several songs in which he sang lead, the irrepressible Carter worked the stage and the audience like an exuberant teen-ager looking for his first big break in show business. He even ventured into the audience for several minutes in order to greet and shake the hands of his tickled followers.

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