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Review and photos: Irma Thomas, Blind Boys of Alabama send their voices to Guthrie rafters

Irma Thomas performs at the Guthrie on October 23, 2017. All photos by Emmet Kowler for MPR.
Irma Thomas performs at the Guthrie on October 23, 2017. All photos by Emmet Kowler for MPR.

by Cecilia Johnson

October 24, 2017

It's not every day you get a program walking into a concert. But at last night's Guthrie Theater affair, a grand triple bill showcasing Irma Thomas, the Blind Boys of Alabama, and the Preservation Hall Legacy Quintet, no extra step felt out of bounds. A magnificent pink chiffon flower atop Ms. Thomas's shoulder? Oh so justified. Cushioned seats for everyone and their grandmother? But of course.

Co-presented by the Dakota Jazz Club and the Guthrie Theater, the show was billed "The Heart and Soul of New Orleans," an assembly of living gospel/soul legends on tour this fall. Each act performed for about 40 minutes on their own. But by the end, all three shared the stage.

The Preservation Hall Legacy Quintet — a sibling group to the vaunted Preservation Hall Jazz Band — opened the show with a pack of classics, including jazz bastion "Bourbon Street Parade" and Baptist hymn "Just A Little While To Stay Here." Band members Joe Lastie (drums), Chris Vaught (organ), Freddie Lonzo (trombone), Gregg Stafford (trumpet), and Calvin Johnson (saxophone) took turns giving zingy solos. Later, they'd return to back the Blind Boys and Irma Thomas, and they were the five who delivered the show's encore (the much-requested "Saints Go Marching In").

The Blind Boys of Alabama (Eaux Claires alumni) raised spirits with their ardent tunes, four-part harmonies, and delightfully eccentric manners. They've lost most of their original line-up to age. But founding member Jimmy Carter still tours with the group, and his determined belting and hmp hmp chuckles stole my heart. Beside Carter, Ben Moore and Paul Beasley sang, Beasley repeatedly shrieking one line of "There Will Never Be Any Peace" like a gymnast swinging around the uneven bars. "We've had a ball," Carter told the audience. "Only thing now is I'm hungry!"

As racism and discrimination continue to sponge into mainstream culture this year, I’ve been sheltering myself inside soul, gospel and funk music. It’s partly because of Prince’s passing, which made me realize the greats won’t be around forever; partly due to Andrea Swensson’s new book, Got To Be Something Here, an uncovering of hidden figures from the Minneapolis Sound. Something so resolute and bright, a “this little light of mine,” of sorts, emanates from ’60s and ‘70s black music.

So when the Blind Boys of Alabama launched into "Amazing Grace," singing the familiar lyrics over a "House of the Rising Sun" instrumental, I relaxed into the music. When they sang the title track of their new album, Almost Home, I smiled at the spotlight Carter's band allowed him. When they started gospel classic “I’ll Fly Away,” I wondered how many sanctuaries soar with the song on Sunday mornings, and how many stereos swell with the version from Kanye’s College Dropout. It warmed my heart to decide they must be countless.

Irma Thomas, a contemporary of Etta James and Dionne Warwick, stayed cool throughout her headlining set. She had her first hit, "(You Can Have My Husband But Please) Don't Mess With My Man," when she was 18. Fifty-eight years later, she's still performing all over the world, and her confidence showed. She talked about her love for her current husband ("I've spent 42 years training him"), the importance of fighting cancer, and how good it feels to see "young people playing old-school music," gesturing to the Blind Boys' bassist behind her. She sang "Don't Mess With My Man" plus four other songs with rotating players, standing on a raised platform and turning to face each section of the audience.

The Guthrie Theater did seem like a strange venue for the night of entertainment. Its Wurtele Thrust Stage can seat 1,100 people, almost four times more than the Dakota. But with their production of Romeo & Juliet still running through the end of October, the concert was simply stapled on top of the play's set. Even the Preservation Hall artistic director opened his introduction with, "This feels weird."

That said, if the "Heart and Soul of New Orleans" crew ever performs at the Dakota, I'll be there.

While in town, the Blind Boys of Alabama recorded a Current in-studio session, which will air on Radio Heartland and United States of Americana on Nov. 5.

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.