The Dirty Dozen Brass Band likes to get right to the point: Ten minutes into its Kimmel Center set on Sunday night, it was going full-blast with "When the Saints Go Marching In." Powered by four horns and a back line of sousaphone, guitar and drums, it played "John the Revelator" and James Brown's "Super Bad," then closed with a roof-raising "I'll Fly Away" that galvanized even the upper tiers.
After intermission, the headliners came marching in: three blind vocalists plus backing band, all in dark sunglasses, black shirts and impossibly bright red suits. Before they played a note, the Blind Boys of Alabama were a sight to behold.
In their own ways, Dirty Dozen and the Blind Boys have given black vernacular music - New Orleans street-band tradition and group gospel vocals, respectively - a 21st-century significance.
Dirty Dozen released Funeral for a Friend in 2004 on the jazz/hip-hop label Ropeadope; the band recruited rappers Chuck D and Guru for its 2006 post-Katrina Marvin Gaye tribute What's Going On. The Blind Boys have worked with the likes of Peter Gabriel, sung songs by Stevie Wonder and Prince, and recorded music for the TV series Lost and The Wire.
This being their annual Christmas tour, the Blind Boys offered "I Pray on Christmas," "Silent Night," "White Christmas" and "Last Month of the Year," in a mix of up-tempo and ballad feels.
Led by Jimmy Carter (a founding member from the '40s), the group included vocalists Bishop Billy Bowers and Ben Moore, two guitarists, a bassist and drummer. Nearly all of the instrumentalists sang as well.
The multiple Grammy winners had plenty to draw on, including their adaptations of "Amazing Grace" and "Go Tell It on the Mountain," Tom Waits' "Down in the Hole," Ben Harper's "There Will Be a Light" and Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky."
They launched into frenetic, old-time revival mode for the finale, Clarence Fountain's "Look Where He Brought Me From." Carter, with a guide, left the stage and strode through the aisles, hollering all the way. To cue applause, he'd simply hold out his mike and shake it.
In the midst of a boisterous standing ovation, the Blind Boys exited as they entered: in a line, hands on each other's shoulders, feeling their way forward.