- Ben Harper and the Blind Boys of Alabama- Live at the Apollo
Filmed at Harlem’s Apollo Theater on October 12, 2004, Live at the Apollo captures a valuable and intimate meeting of Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals with The Blind Boys of Alabama, a blind gospel vocal group that formed in 1939 at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind. The songs performed had been recently penned for their Grammy winning album entitled There Will be a Light.
Blind Boys co-founder/singer George Scott died in his sleep on March 9, 2005, at the age of 75. Though the DVD wasn’t released to the public until March 29, he knew it was coming, the gospel was about to be spread, and certainly he passed with a satisfied mind. Watching the concert is a little haunting with that knowledge, but it’s also just the way things work. We all know we’ll die at some point, in some way, but how many of us truly feel ready for the transition? Watching this DVD, hearing Scott sing, it’s certain he died sure of his own future, and that’s, somehow, at least, comforting to me.
The concert begins with Harper walking onto the historic Apollo stage, no chance of any boo-ing tonight…no cane-toting clowns either. He takes a seat, is handed a slide guitar and after settling in, picks away at a slow moving delta instrumental called "11th Commandment." Soon enough, resembling a line of marching elephants, the Blind Boys of Alabama (hardly boys) inch behind Harper to take their positions on stage. They enter, single-file, marching with a hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them (hence the pachyderm reference) so as not to get lost on stage. As "11th Commandment" becomes more energetic, the energy is truly palpable; it went all the way into my bedroom!
This is no boring church service. It’s a Southern Baptist Sunday at its most entertaining not that entertaining is religion’s goal, but it helps spread the message. As a young boy, my mom and I used to go to a church that attempted to vibe somewhere towards this. You know, the band always raged, the choir was massive and if the spirit so moved you, you were free welcome even to leave your pew and skip through the aisles with carefree abandon. I moved to the country with my mom and step-dad when I was 13 and found myself in stauncher church environs where a cough could disrupt the preacher’s flow for the rest of the hour. Needless to say, I didn’t last long there. So, I have a special affinity for people who are lively about their beliefs and it’d be impossible to mistake Harper and crew’s energy for anything other than delicious faith. You may not agree with it, may just have your own version of the story in mind, but you can’t deny the power of belief and here it has generated greatness. I’ll swim through great gospel licks just as happily as I will a reggae nyambinghi rhythm or the heavy twang of a raga’s sitar; it’s all valid and wonderful religious music, another chapter in the human dialogue, even if you can’t grasp or just completely disagree with the ideologies.
"Well, Well, Well" is nudged along by the Oliver Charles’ plodding kick drum, the march of Leon Mobley’s tambourines, and the tears pouring from Harper’s slide. And the voices! Harper is already known for the depth of his pipes and alongside the harmonizing Blind Boys, he is magic. "I Want to be Ready" is emotional and Harper came ready to convey through his acrobatic voice; his face evidences his belief. "Covet no silver; covet no gold. Reach your empty hands for him to hold," Harper sings.
"Take My Hand" falls into a lovely reggae/funk tangent during which Scott stands for a vocal spotlight. "I wanna walk with ya, I wanna talk with ya, oh Lordy…," sings Scott, while the rest of his crew repeats the song’s title over ever-funkier Jason Yates keyboard licks. This one-off performance was certainly well arranged. Songs like "Picture of Jesus" could make the un-interested/un-effected turn away in boredom or disgust. If you’re a Christian, you’ve got a new fave and for collectors of great musics, faith concerns removed, this DVD deserves applause for documenting this American-original art. If you’ve ever dug the blues at all, bands like the Allman Brothers or any other soulful band, while hearing this, you’ll realize that they owe so much to gospel groups and small church bands whose pockets hold little more than lint.
After sitting "down upon the Church House Steps’" and Harper’s notable Hendrix-esque guitar slide, it’s time for introductions. "I’d like to introduce the cats," Harper quips. A long, but deserved, introduction follows. The Blind Boys of Alabama are tonight, minus their band Jimmy Carter, George Scott, Clarence Fountain and a younger NYC native Joey Williams. Ben Harper then introduces his band The Innocent Criminals. On bass is Juan Nelson, on percussion is Leon Mobley, on drums is Oliver Charles, on keyboards is Jason Yates (did DVD artwork as well) and on guitar is Mark Ford.
"Give a Man a Home" is worth the purchase of the DVD alone. Wow! If this one does not touch you, I’m not sure what’s up. "Have you ever lost your way? Have you ever feared another day? Have you ever misplaced your mind…watching the world leaving you behind?" these are questions Harper sings before getting to the heavyweight harmony. He sings, in harmony with the Blind Boys, "Won’t you give a man a home?" This line serves as the chorus. We’ve all been lost, if only for a minute, maybe a minute as insignificant as becoming "lost" as a child in a store. Remember that hopelessness the next time you see someone struggle, while you have to offer. Remember, and lend a hand.
"Wicked Man" enters like an auditory party. It rocks and celebrates that "the wicked man shall fall." We can all get down to that idea, I think. It also boasts one of the wiser lines contained herein: "What’s sweet by morning’s bitter by the evening." Talk about longing, "Mother Pray" is an a-ca-pella tune (Harper with the Blind Boys), if you don’t count the metronomic tambourine, full of mourning. If you can’t relate, you will be able to, sometime. I can’t relate yet, but looking forward, I’m sure to one day also cry along with the Boys’ singing, "if I could only hear my mother pray again." Is there a more honest and beautiful sentiment?
From there the themes ring more hopeful. Harper thanks the Blind Boys, commenting on it having been an honor to work alongside these legends. "They opened up a very special window to me…into the depth of soul music," Harper says.
"I Shall not Walk Alone" is a song of hope and faith that a Friend is always watching us. Carter stands for a vocal solo and although he can’t see, you know he’s experienced a lot, evidenced through the force of his difficult spinning-tire vocal delivery, for which he received a standing-O he couldn’t see, not that it stopped anyone. The tambourine starting "Church on Time" is a party on its own. This is why Southern Baptists make a day out of church. Nothing on Sunday TV is as good, so why not have a concert? This is one of those songs that keeps em coming, and it never hurts to end the show on an up-note. After this splash of spirit, everyone exits the stage, but of course there is an encore or two…or three.
Harper comes back on stage and rubs the lucky Apollo stump pedestaled between him and Yates’ keyboard set-up. He could’ve rubbed it earlier, you always rub it before grabbing the mic, but he didn’t need to. Harper said, "I know gospel means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but thank you for allowing it to mean the same thing to everyone here tonight." I’m not sure that it necessarily meant the same to everyone there that night, but certainly everyone was happy to have been there.
If all churches had music programs like this, church would be the hottest ticket in town, every Sunday. "Where Could I go" is performed by Harper and the Criminals, sans the Boys. Afterwards, the Blind Boys return, hands on one-another’s guiding shoulders, just as they entered at the start. "There Will be a Light," exposes the dream of all people, and in turn, religions, with the line "I wish we could live forever." The final and the most assuring song of the encore/show is "Satisfied Mind." Carter takes the spotlight after Harper sings, "it’s so hard to find one rich man in ten with a satisfied mind." Representing that lint-pocketed person I spoke of earlier, Carter’s delivery is so rich on its own. He stands and is guided out to the front of the stage and into the crowd by the hand of Williams, the youngest Blind Boy on stage. "My conscience is clear y’all. I’ve got a satisfied mind," sings Carter. Church is in effect. "Can I come on down?" he asks the crowd before kicking back into his revving engine delivery. It’s awe-inspiring, the length of time he can go without gasping for a breath. Harper takes Carter’s seat alongside the other Blind Boys while Carter testifies in the aisles. It’s so wonderful that I forgot to and therefore stopped paying attention. I let my reviewers cap fall off for an amazing few minutes. Now that’s good shit and a mark of joy. Harper and crew gave the crowd pearly smiles and a word of hope that’s hard to hate on.
After all that, who needs extras? But, you get them, still! So, throw in the Behind the Scenes rehearsal/soundcheck section, the Making the Album section and photographer Danny Clinch’s slideshow it’s the total package I can recommend with a satisfied mind.