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Blind Boys of Alabama return to Mondavi with gospel standards, holiday tunes

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The Blind Boys of Alabama's Christmas tour comes to the Mondavi Center on Friday, Dec. 13. Cameron Witting/Courtesy photo

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From page A9 | December 10, 2013 |

That’s the ticket

Who: Blind Boys of Alabama

When: 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 13

Where: Jackson Hall, Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, UC Davis

Tickets: $49 general, $24.50 students; www.mondaviarts.org or 530-754-2787

After roughly 70 years as a vocal ensemble — including five Grammy Awards during the past 14 years — the Blind Boys of Alabama just keep going on, and on, and on. Their current Christmas tour includes a performance at the Mondavi Center at 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 13, in Jackson Hall.

The Blind Boys recently released a new album — a collaboration between the gospel veterans and vocalist/producer Justin Vernon (of the group Bon Iver, an American indie pop band from rural Wisconsin that was founded in 2007.

“I think it’s one of the best albums we’ve done in a while,” said Ricky McKinnie, who’s been affiliated with the Blind Boys for 24 years. “What makes it different is that we’re singing some traditional gospel songs, but in a mainstream approach,” with guest vocals from white performers from the indie pop realm, some of whom are young enough to be the grandchildren of the more senior members of the Blind Boys.

“Naturally, we will be doing some of the material from the new album,” McKinnie said. “Tunes like ‘I Shall Not Be Moved’ and ‘Take Your Burdens To The Lord.’ ”

And the Blind Boys will be reprising tunes from their 2008 holiday album, “Go Tell It On The Mountain.” The set list likely will include a gospel-influenced version of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” and a gospel version of “Silent Night,” originally a holiday hymn with German lyrics.

And then there’s “Last Month of the Year” — a venerable gospel standard in which one singer calls out “Tell me, when was Jesus born? Was it January?” The reply from the other singers: “No?” “February?” “No!” “March? April? May?” “No, no.” And as the singers work their way through the months (“June? July? August?”) the Blind Boys simultaneously entertain the crowd and gently educate the very youngest members of the audience.

That mix of entertaining music and gospel content is a hallmark of the Blind Boys’ annual December tour.

“Anytime when we go to a university, like UC Davis, we realize that many people are not there to be preached to, but to be sung to,” McKinnie explained. “We come to sing. And if someone is feeling bad” — and in need of a spiritual boost — “well, they need to hear a Blind Boys concert,” he added.

Given the many decades that the group has been performing, there have been inevitable changes in the Blind Boys lineup. The group first sang together in the glee club in 1944 at the Alabama Institute for the Blind in Talladega, Ala.; the original members were about 9 years old at the time.

Clarence Fountain, one of those original members, still records with the group when his health allows, but is no longer able to tour. Vocalist Jimmy Carter (born in 1929) is the longest-serving member of the current lineup. McKinnie (born in 1952) began his career singing with groups like Troy Ramey and the Soul Searchers, as well as the Gospel Keynotes (with whom he earned a gold record in 1972).

McKinnie lost his eyesight to glaucoma in 1976, but kept on performing. The Blind Boys’ Clarence Fountain recruited McKinnie in 1989, and he has served in various capacities as the Blind Boys drummer, tour manager and vocalist (appearing on four of the group’s Grammy-winning albums in recent years).

These days, the Blind Boys tour internationally.

“We were just in Brazil, where we saw our old-time friend Bobby Womack and the Rev. Jesse Jackson,” McKinnie said.

Womack wrote and recorded the tune “It’s All Over Now,” which is probably best known in the version recorded by the Rolling Stones; he was later inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Jackson was the first black presidential candidate to win statewide contests (Louisiana and South Carolina) in the 1984 campaign for the Democratic nomination.

“You just let the people in Davis know that The Blind Boys are coming to town,” McKinnie urged this reporter. “We’re going to be singing the best of Christmas music, and some of the best of our Grammy music, and songs from our new album.”

Tickets are $49 general, $24.50 for students, available at www.mondaviarts.org or 530-754-2787.

— Reach Jeff Hudson at jhudson@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8055. Follow him on Twitter at @JeffHudsonDE

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