There's nothing like bona fide gospel music to cleanse the aural palate of the endless shopping-mall renditions of "Jingle Bells" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" at this time of year. That's the seasonal blessing the venerated Blind Boys of Alabama brought with their stirring "Go Tell It on the Mountain" holiday program Saturday at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
The long-running ensemble, fronted this night by founding member Jimmy Carter, brought spirit to the forefront, letting its commitment to the gospel tradition stand in for anything resembling proselytizing for this secular outing. Clarence Fountain, the group's longtime focal point, missed Saturday's show because he's undergoing dialysis treatment for his diabetes, according to a Disney Hall spokeswoman. Ben Moore handled his vocal parts.
Fountain's absence, however, didn't create a monumental void, especially given the torrents of vocal power unleashed by latter-day recruit Billy Bowers, a mountain of a man who looked like nothing so much as a chunk of granite in sunglasses and who consistently pushed the emotion toward the heavens.
The four-time Grammy winners mixed spiritually rooted holiday music with their cornerstone gospel songs in a program that was imaginatively conceived, enthusiastically executed and briskly paced. In fact, by the time they reached the end of the 90-minute show, it seemed they'd just gotten warmed up, and their departure came too soon.
Songs such as the concert-opening "Down by the Riverside" and "Go Tell It on the Mountain" are as ubiquitous in the gospel world as "Jingle Bells" is in the realm of holiday music, so it takes considerable smarts to lift them above the conventional. The Blind Boys put their stamp on "Go Tell It" by shifting its musical foundation from major to minor key, lending it additional heft with a tinge of darkness instead of the usual celebratory feeling.
And they delivered their answer to the pop world's mash-up mania with a rendition of "Amazing Grace" that replaced its exceedingly familiar melody with that of "The House of the Rising Sun."
Two mini-segments within the show contained the Christmas music, and the least familiar -- "When Jesus Was Born" and "I Pray on Christmas" -- fared best, although their turning of "Silent Night" into a soul scorcher also worked beautifully.
The only false note came during that number, when Carter left his spot at center stage, wound his way through the crowd and back onstage with a playful game of pretend-to-end-the-show while continuing to stretch out the song.
Near the end, he feigned fainting into the arms of one of his sighted bandmates. It was clearly a stab at adding a little entertainment dramatics, a la James Brown's multiple stage exits of yore. But it paled in the context of the genuinely overwhelming spiritual tension that gospel singers can create during a full-on church service.
It was the only time this six-decades-old performing institution appeared to forget the scriptural advice to be in the world but not of the world.