Listen to Austin 360 Radio

ACL Fest review: Blind Boys of Alabama

Deborah Sengupta

Editor’s note: This article was originally published October 4, 2013

Playing a mix of classic gospel and spiritually oriented rock, the Blind Boys of Alabama effectively transformed the Zilker Stage into a revival tent during their late afternoon set. The four visually impaired octogenarian vocalists sat in a row at the front of the stage, wearing matching silver lamé suits. They took turns on vocals, rising to their feet when moved by the spirit.

A couple songs in, the band played their best known hit, “Down in the Hole” (the theme song from season one of HBO’s “The Wire”), but it was the classic African American spirituals like “I Shall Not Be Moved” that elicited some of the biggest crowd responses. With soaring falsetto and tight harmonies translating the sheer joy in songs like “There Will Never Be Any Peace,” it was immediately clear how this group has persevered through so many decades.

Some members of the crowd raised their hands in praise, clearly moved by the spirit. Others had their experience enhanced by the smoke passed around at the front of the stage and, because this is Austin, at least one young woman expressed her joy with a hula hoop. Close to the end of the set they aptly captured the energy of a room full of both sinners and the saved with a dark rendition of “Amazing Grace’ set to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun.” Then they capped the triumphant set leading one of the vocalists into the crowd in an endeavor that took four security officials, but thrilled the crowd.

Throughout the set, the crowd never reached capacity, but those who remained at the end of the show were so moved that they called for an encore longer and with more enthusiasm than I’ve heard in ages. And in a rare move for ACL Fest, the band returned to the stage for a final number, a hard-hitting cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” which is an apt description for state of mind with which most of the fans left the tent.