“We don’t like to play to conservative audiences,” Jimmy Carter told a nearly full house inside Yardley Hall on Sunday. “We like noisy crowds.”
A few songs later, the only remaining founding member of the Blind Boys of Alabama coaxed that crowd onto its feet and, with a handler as his guide, stirred up some noise, dancing and jubilation as he walked up one aisle and down the other, shaking hands and leading his group and Dr. John and his Lower 911 Band in a long, boisterous soul-stirring rendition of “If I Had a Hammer.” It was one of several highlights in 100-minute “Spirituals to Funk” concert that showcased the connection between gospel, funk, jazz and the blues.
Dr. John (Mac Rebennack) brought a four-piece band that included Sarah Morrow, who gave several swampy funk-blues tunes a heavy New Orleans flavor with fills and leads on trombone. They opened the show with a six-song set that included one of his best-known songs, “Right Place Wrong Time.”
The New Orleans legend would switch from organ to piano throughout the set; during “Let The Good Times Roll,” he strapped on an electric guitar and laid down a funky lead. After that number, the Blind Boys were escorted onstage and they shifted the mood from foot-stomping to something more transcendent.
First they did a lovely version of “People Get Ready” cast in four-part harmonies, then a gospel-style version of “Spirit in the Sky,” the hit by Norman Greenbaum. Two songs later, they gave “Amazing Grace” a divine Southern twist, singing the well-known spiritual to the melody of “House of the Rising Sun.” They ended their set with “Hammer,” which generated the loudest and longest ovation of the evening.
Their co-headliner sustained the mood with another large helping of New Orleans style funk and blues. One of those tunes was the slow-cooking “Locked Down,” the title track off his latest album, produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. They ended the set with a gritty version of one of his standards, “Wang Dang Doodle,” then “Big Chief,” during which each member of the band took a solo and a bow (Morrow, Raymond Weber on drums, David Barard on bass and John Fohl on guitar).
The Blind Boys would join Dr. John and the band for the finale: First, they made a bluesy hymn out of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” then rekindled the transcendence with another well-known spiritual, “Lay My Burden Down.” By then, the mood in the room felt anything but burdened. It was afloat on the glory of music, the confluence of the visceral and spiritual, the grace of being in the right place at the perfect time.