The Blind Boys of Alabama sound like history. Their raspy voices, their pure, deep harmonies and their lyrics of sin and salvation conjure up the indignities of segregation, the searing hope of the Civil Rights movement and the thunder of a backwoods revival meeting. Theirs is a song of the South, of nickel Cokes, threadbare hand-me-downs and humidity that would peel the leather off a Bible.
With at least three members well into their 70s, the Blind Boys of Alabama not only sound like history, they are history. But a quick look at their touring schedule - which takes them everywhere from Idaho to Ireland, with sellout crowds almost everywhere they go - shows that these are Blind Boys who have no intention of slowing down.
"Those big audiences, they're just another extension of the Lord to allow us to elevate Him higher," says drummer and road manager Ricky McKinnie, a relative kid at 51. "We've always been successful just doing what we do and that's singing the Gospel."
The earliest version of the band formed in 1937 at the Talladega Institute for the Deaf and Blind. Clarence Fountain, who lost his sight at the age of two to a midwife's pinkeye remedy, figured he and a few of his friends in the school's choir would be better off singing for a living rather than making brooms at the blind school. Clarence Fountain and the Happyland Jubilee Singers, as they were originally called, weren't even the only blind boy gospel group around at that time, and a musical showdown with the Blind Boys of Mississippi - eagerly billed as "The Battle of the Blind Boys" -- earned them the name they carry to this day.
Three members of the original lineup - Fountain, Jimmy Carter and George Scott - are still with the band. All three are blind, as is Ricky McKinnie, who lost his sight at the age of 25. Fountain, Carter and Scott are also diabetic, which adds a whole new arena of health challenges, but nobody's willing to call it quits. When the Blind Boys of Alabama walk onstage, they do it the way they've done it for more than sixty years, with the sighted members leading the way and the blind members following, each one with a hand on the shoulder ahead of him.
"You know, as you get older, you always have health problems, but prayer is what has kept this group together this long," says McKinnie. "Sight is a mental thing. If you can focus, you can do what you have to do. Playing music is just like typing or anything else. You don't have to see it to do it."
While the Blind Boys of Alabama always enjoyed a certain amount of success in Gospel music circles, it was their appearance in the 1983 Obie-award winning musical The Gospel at Colonus - based on Oedipus Rex with the Blind Boys as the Greek Chorus - that catapulted them to national fame. They released Deep River - their first foray into "gospelizing" contemporary music (including Bob Dylan's "I Believe in You" -- in 1992, followed by several more albums of live and/or contemporary material.
Spirit of the Century was their watershed 2001 return to their roots, with traditional gospel tunes like "Nobody's Fault But Mine," "Motherless Child" and "Amazing Grace" interspersed with covers of Tom Waits' "Jesus Gonna Be Here" and Ben Harper's "Give a Man a Home." Far from being easy, "everything's all right" Gospel, Spirit of the Century impressed critics with its grit and with its ability to take risks. In fact, their version of "Amazing Grace" -- set to the Rolling Stones' whorehouse dirge "House of the Rising Sun" -- is one of the most disturbing you'll ever hear.
"That was our producer John Chelew's idea and at first we didn't like it," admits Mc Kinnie. "But then as we began to do it more, it sorta grew on us. So in the end it worked."
McKinnie finishes many of his sentences with a soft "mm-hm." It brings to mind Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade character, but without a trace of irony or affectation. In addition to his work with the Blind Boys of Alabama, McKinnie has his own namesake band (along with his mother and brother) back in Atlanta, Ga. Gospel has been his life's calling, and in some towns, he still finds himself showing new converts the way.
"Sometimes people think that Gospel music is something that you sit down and listen to," he says incredulously. "We let them know right from the start that Gospel is music that you get up and have a good time to. If you feel like you want to dance, or clap your hands or whatever the situation may be, it's all right."
This Tweakend -- Much like Dexy's Midnight Runners, the Doobie Brothers, Green Day and a handful of other bands, the Crystal Method thought that a clever drug reference might make their music industry image a little more edgy.
But before you stock up on the Krazy Glue and whippits for Saturday's show, realize that the name is just a play on words. Sure, band mates Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland knew the band name sounded strangely similar to Spokane's drug of choice -- but the name doesn't imply what you think it does. The two friends, who met while working at a college radio station in Las Vegas, used to bum rides from a girl named Crystal. They joked that getting driven around by Crystal was known as "the Crystal Method" of transportation. Those cheeky guys....
Now seven years since the Crystal Method's first chart-topping electronica release, Vegas, they've kept the name and will hit Spokane for the first time ever as a part of their tour promoting their third album, Legion of Boom.
Since the electronica (more commonly known as "techno") scene is nothing to shout about here in the Inland Northwest, here's a little three-sentence Electronica for Dummies: Unlike most other music styles, techno has no boundaries. It's always mixed by a DJ, and falls into a category (ambient, breakbeat, jungle, house, etc.) depending on the music's beat and overall dance-ability, among other things. It's hardly a new style, but it's one that has had few mainstream hits -- especially here in the States.
The few hits that the computer-based genre has seen, especially in the last ten years, have by and large been mastered by the Crystal Method. Mainstream alternative stations have nabbed songs from each of the Crystal Method's albums, and companies have even grabbed songs for clothing and car commercials. The duo saw "(Can't You) Trip Like I Do" and "Busy Child" become instant hits off the 1997 Vegas CD, and shortly after the much-awaited release of Tweakend in 2001, the group saw "Murder" invade the airwaves. Now with their new album Legion of Boom, Kirkland and Jordan are seeing the same popularity with the single "Born to Slow."
While most of their music is mixed on computers, Saturday's show will hardly consist of watching two computer geeks hack at onstage computer workstations.
"Our live tour is totally like a concert performance and we are playing all of our own music," Ken Jordan says. "We have samplers and synthesizers and everything like that. It's much more like a regular concert."
Their well-versed musical backgrounds help them in the performance aspect of their shows. After co-dabbling in underground and dance music in Vegas, Jordan and Kirkland tried their hand at other musical styles. Jordan worked in Los Angeles as an assistant producer for Edie Brickell and Michael Penn, while Kirkland took some pointers from Mark Slaughter of the heavy metal band, Slaughter.
Drawing on their varied experience, the Crystal Method has been able to continually produce electronica that taps into nearly every musical genre, and has collaborated with artists from Wes Borland (formerly of Limp Bizkit) and Scott Weiland (Stone Temple Pilots), to Milla Jovovich and Rahzel (The Roots).
Their continually changing sound draws hoards of fans--fans to whom, Jordan says, they are hopelessly devoted. In fact, they're devoted enough that anyone who brings the CD jacket from Legion of Boom to the any of the upcoming tour dates can get it signed and have a chance to chat with the boys for a few minutes after the show.
Since this will be the Crystal Method's first visit to Spokane, Jordan says he's sure it will be a fun show, perhaps because they always shock skeptical fans:
"Every time we play a city for the first time, it's always the best shows. I don't know what it is. They are just the best," he says.
Hampton in '04 -- Though the great Lionel Hampton is no longer with us in the flesh -- he tossed off this mortal coil in August 2002 -- through a dedication to a lifetime of music performance, education and activism, he has earned a spot among the immortals of American jazz. In our neck of the woods, the instruction and performance-intensive festival that bears his name and endorsement -- the University of Idaho's Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival -- is further assurance that the many contributions of the bandleader and vibraphonist will never be forgotten. But this annual jazz fest in Moscow, Idaho, is far from merely a tribute celebration -- it's a work in progress. And the real work, the real value, of Hampton's namesake festival is music education.
The close interaction between students and artist makes the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival the king of instructional jazz festivals. Here, student groups from elementary, middle and junior high schools from around the country are given the rare opportunity to express their own skills and creativity in the presence of professional jazz musicians who are there to inspire but also to teach. Experience it for yourselves this weekend (Feb. 25-28) on the UI campus.
The music lineup this year looks a little something like this. Thursday evening starts things off with the tap guitar of Enver Izmailov (7 pm) and the Horizon Air Special Guest Concert featuring the Roy Hargrove Quintet (7:30 pm). Friday's festivities begin early with the Verizon Outstanding Young Vocal Artists Concert, featuring outstanding high school vocal ensembles from the day's adjudicated performances (4:45 pm), followed by pianist Jim Martinez (7:30 pm) and the Zion Bank All Star Concert with vocalist Jane Monheit (8 pm). Saturday night's show is the big daddy, starting with the Avista Outstanding Young Instrumental Artists Concert, featuring the outstanding high school instrumental ensembles from the day's adjudicated performances (4:45 pm) and then the Hampton Trombone Factory (7:30 pm). Then and only then will the Lionel Hampton Giants of Jazz concert commence. Joining Hampton's namesake New York big band this year are vocalists Evelyn White and the Four Freshmen.