Starting as part of the school choir of the Talladega Institute for the Blind, the Blind Boys of Alabama have, as they proudly proclaim on their latest album 'Spirit of the Century', "been singing Gospel music continuously since 1939". Originally named the Happy Land Jubilee Singers, they would sneak out of school to sing for soldiers at a local army camp. Emboldened by the success of these performances, they dropped out of school and went on the road, hitting the Gospel Highway for what was to be the first of many times in 1945.
As The Five Blind Boys of Alabama in the 1950s, they stuck to their spiritual guns at a time when many gospel singers, such as the great Sam Cooke, were crossing over to a more secular sound. Over half a century later, they may be a little greyer and a little more tired, but the vocation - and the passion - is still there. At last week's performance in Dublin's Vicar Street, the Blind Boys walked on stage led by their sighted guitarist, each man with his hand on the shoulder of the man in front, and a thrill ran through the crowd. Some people were there just for the music but for many it was a far deeper experience; whatever your religious slant, it is impossible not to be moved.
Clarence Fountain remained seated for much of the evening, but couldn't help occasionally standing up and swivelling his hips like an elderly Elvis while Jimmy Carter roamed the audience, singing, testifying and screaming longer than any little old man should be able to as he moved through the clapping and whooping crowd.
After a show like that you will need something to fill the Blind Boys-shaped hole in your life: their new album 'Spirit of the Century' ranges from old faithfuls like 'Motherless Child' and 'Nobody's Fault But Mine' through an interpretation of Amazing Grace (set to the tune of 'The House of the Rising Sun') as well as songs by Tom Waits and Ben Harper. Their recording of the traditional 'Run On For A Long Time' reclaims it from Moby's dabblings and they finish, as they did their concert, with the magnificent 'The Last Time'. As Clarence sings, "This may be the last time/This may be the last time, children" all you can do is pray that he's wrong. Come back soon Blind Boys.
'Spirit of the Century' is out now on Real World Records.