Blind Boys will bring their gospel

    Fifty records, one Broadway show and no less than 60 years after meeting at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in 1939, the Grammy Award-winning, genre-bending Blind Boys of Alabama are bringing their version of the gospel to a university near you.

    The Blind Boys kicked off a year-long international tour last week that will make stops at a dozen U.S. campuses, including our very own UCSD on Feb. 5. At first glance, the college circuit might seem an ill-advised choice of venue for a group composed primarily of blind, geriatric gospel singers. But then again, the Blind Boys are far from your traditional gospel ensemble.

    The Blind Boys’ brand of gospel, though still rooted in hymnal tradition, owes equal parts to modern R&B, blues and rock ‘n’ roll. It is exactly this combination of the traditional and the contemporary that has won the Blind Boys notoriety outside the nation’s standard gospel circles.

    The Blind Boys’ journey into the mainstream began in 1983 with roles in the Broadway musical “”The Gospel at Colonnus,”” but it was not until their 2001 release of “”Spirit of the Century”” on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label that the four-man vocal group garnered national renown. An experiment in musical crosspollination, “”Spirit of the Century”” found the Blind Boys covering songs by seemingly some of the most secular musicians of the times, including Tom Waits, the Rolling Stones and Ben Harper. In addition, “”Spirit of the Century”” featured a brilliantly original, stripped-down version of “”Amazing Grace”” sung to the minor melody of the traditional “”House of the Rising Sun,”” which won the group spots on late-night television, but limited radio play.

    The album peaked at No. 42 on Billboard’s Heatseekers Chart, an impressive showing for a gospel record. Furthermore, the Blind Boys took home the Grammy that year for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album.

    The Blind Boys followed “”Spirit of the Century”” with an even more ambitious crossover effort last year. 2002’s “”Higher Ground,”” the Blind Boys’ most recent release, tackles Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, Prince, Jimmy Cliff, Stevie Wonder, George Clinton and, again, Harper, who sits in on three songs. Not only has “”Higher Ground”” further expanded the Blind Boys’ audience in the five months since its release, but it was also recently nominated, like “”Spirit of the Century,”” for the Traditional Soul Gospel Grammy.

    The Blind Boys’ lineup has changed a great deal over the group’s 60-plus year career. However, founding members Clarence Fountain, Jimmy Carter and George Scott still form the vocal core of the ensemble. More recent arrivals to the group include Joey Williams, Ricky McKinnie and Bobby Butler. The Blind Boys are backed by pedal steel guitar impresionado Robert Randolph and his Family Band.

    The University Events Office-sponsored show will be in Mandeville Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. General admission is $25; the faculty, staff and senior citizen fare is $22; and the student rate is $15.

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