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Review: Chan Centre Opening, The Blind Boys of Alabama and Ben Heppner

Photo by Jim Herrington

When the Blind Boys took the stage on September 23rd, their frontman Jimmy Carter sounded like he could barely get out his introduction, his voice was so battered with age. But as soon as they started singing, the ensemble sounded like a finely tuned harmonica, and the rest of the night was a showcase of daring vocal feats. Maybe I should back up a little. The Chan Centre produced a double bill for their 20th anniversary opening night. The Blind Boys of Alabama, gospel singers who started performing together in the 1930’s, were the headline act, but we were also treated to the more classical stylings of Canadian tenor Ben Heppner.

Photo by Kristin Hoebermann

Heppner’s voice was impressively powerful and gave his opening selection a weight appropriate to the subject matter, namely God. I especially enjoyed his Lord’s prayer, a piece he told us he had sung innumerable times for weddings growing up. I appreciated this counterpoint to the bluesy gospel that was to come, because it reminded me of my young catholic days, and because it drew a line connecting Europe and the Americas, giving the audience something to ponder about the evolution of music and culture. Heppner filled the auditorium with his solo performance, switching from his fuller, brassy tone, to a breathy reverent tone effortlessly. It felt like he was trying to find his footing at the beginning, not quite making a note or two, but all is forgiven because his overall performance left me with a feeling I hadn’t experienced since my catechism. Heppner came on a bit later to join The Blind Boys on some songs, which I thought was a daring combination of styles. Heppner, however, couldn’t shake his classical training to swing along with the Boys, creating some musical tension in pace that wasn’t entirely deliberate in my opinion. That said, the five and six part harmonies possible with Heppner were jaw-dropping.

Photo by Cameron Witting

Now, to talk about the main event. Jimmy Carter is a consummate showman. Even from their entrance, being led onstage by their sighted guitarist (because Blind Boys isn’t just a name) Carter was pumping up the audience, calling for more applause. During the course of the night, Carter and his crew chipped away at the usually reserved Chan crowd until by the end we were all on our feet clapping along (some on the one-beat, some on the ‘and’.) But it wasn’t just Carter’s infectious energy that fired up the crowd. Each of the three Blind Boys featured in solos throughout the night, Carter with a tenor that rivalled Heppner’s, the main difference being the grit that you expect from blues. There were insanely high falsettos, unfailingly tight harmonies, and one high note held for what seemed like forever. It’s remarkable the joy that was generated over the course of the night. One can really appreciate why religious songs form such a solid part of many cultures, since the feeling you get participating in a singalong is akin to a spiritual high. At any rate, one thing’s for sure. The Blind Boys are still holding it down, and as Carter was not at all shy to remind us on more than one occasion, their new album is for sale .

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