Concert Review: Blackwood Brothers, Bill Shaw, Ken Turner, Ernie Phillips (Bostic, NC)

We’ll do a news roundup at some point—either later today, Monday, or next weekend—and catch up with regularly scheduled programming.

Last night, my schedule unexpectedly opened up in time to catch the Blackwood Brothers in concert. Within the last year or so, they have added Billy Blackwood as baritone and Mike Hammontree as full-time pianist. This was my first time to see them perform (outside of NQC) since the changes.

When baritone/pianist Brad White left, there was some concern that the group would suffer for the lack of his Energizer-bunny spark of endless energy. But Billy Blackwood—Jimmy’s brother, making this the first time in a half-century that two brothers have had singing roles together in the Blackwood Brothers—provides that spark of energy (not to mention great vocal talent).

Hiring a full-time pianist was also an excellent move for the group. Though Mike Hammontree does not put the keyboard through its paces with quite the same energetic abandon that Brad White would use to terrify grand pianos within an inch of their lives and delight audiences in the process, he brings other diverse and prodigious talents to the group. He is conversant with a wide variety of instruments and a wide variety of styles, and is particularly adept with playing a guitar, also doing a guitar number or two in many of their concerts. He is also a great improviser; more on that momentarily.

Despite the fact that bass singer Randy Byrd was fighting seasonal allergies—though he was still so on top of his game that it would take someone who had seen him a number of times before to even notice—this was easily the best I have seen the Blackwood Brothers. Adding a full-time live pianist and a real-life brother with Billy’s level of talent and stage presence was certainly the right direction to go. They are, more than they have been at any point in the last two decades, a group you most certainly do not want to miss when they come through your area.

I walked into the concert having no idea that anyone besides the headliner group would be appearing. But I was pleasantly surprised; you see, if you will walk into concerts across the United States, you’ll often find local talent opening. Sometimes they are near or at professional quality; other times it might be a challenge to keep a smile on your face through the set. Well, in North Carolina, local/regional talent will also appear before concerts—except here, it just might be Bill Shaw, Ken Turner, and Little Ernie Phillips!

Ken Turner sang bass with the Blackwood Brothers in the 1970s; he sang several solo songs, including his sugar-stick vocal trumpet/trombone rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and between vocals and comedy soon had the audience in the palm of his hand. One of the other performers commented that he was glad it wasn’t a competitive setting, because if it was, nobody would want to follow Turner! He also joined the Blackwood Brothers for several songs, commenting afterwards that it was the first time he had sung with them since 1986. Blackwood Brothers pianist Mike Hammontree provided impromptu live accompaniment on piano and guitar for his set.

Little Ernie Phillips sang tenor for the Kingsmen at the peak of their glory days, in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Phillips followed Johnny Parrack, and raised the bar; the two have been the gold standard by which all Kingsmen tenors since have been measured. Phillips must be at least in his fifties by now, an age by which many tenor’s voices start to deteriorate. But in the years since his Kingsmen years, he’s moved toward the classical-technique-influenced clear-as-a-bell tenor singing, and it has paid off. If it were a singing competition, he could out-sing most Southern Gospel tenors half his age.

One unforgettable highlight from his time on stage: At the request of Mike Hammontree, Ernie Phillips put together a scrap-iron quartet to sing “Glory Road.” Current Blackwood Brothers bass Randy Byrd joined, and played the Jim Hamill role perfectly. He stopped the song halfway through, after Ernie didn’t even try for the high falsetto note in the chorus. He first recognized Ernie as his hero (okay, that part is something Hamill wouldn’t have done!); then he said that he was really hoping Ernie would let it loose and hit some high ones. So Hammontree kicked the chorus off, and Phillips did not disappoint.

He hit the iconic high falsetto note on “see” in “I can see Him on His throne.”

Then he blew the roof off mid-chorus on the high power tenor line “I’m Heaven bound.”

Then he went from blowing the roof off to blowing my mind: In the ending, he went for the super-high notes he would hit in the Kingsmen Big-N-Live days, singing at least an E above high C, though I suspect it may have been a G, and holding it forever—only coming back down once the other singers were nearly out of breath!

Impressive as that was, the evening’s standout performance belonged to Bill Shaw. This 87-year-old legend is the last living link to the days when the Blackwood Brothers and Statesmen were one of the hottest tickets and concert combinations in the country. And much as Ernie still has what it takes to single-handedly recapture the spirit of the Kingsmen’s Big-N-Live days, Bill Shaw still—as an 87-year-old tenor singer—has that onstage charisma and the voice to make that era come alive one more time. There is occasionally a tremor in his voice which reminds you of his age, but there are far more moments where one would not guess that he was the oldest singer to share the stage that night. His clear-as-a-bell singing style, influenced by his classical vocal training, remains strong. He joined the Blackwood Brothers for several songs at the end of their first and second sets—”Old Country Church,” “Just a Little Talk With Jesus,” “I’ll Meet You in the Morning,” and one or two others.

Earlier in the program, though, he sang a three-song solo set. He was joined by Buddy Burton and Burton’s wife on background vocals for “I’m Thankful, That’s All” and “I Should Have Been Crucified.” Then, singing solo, he commanded the stage with his signature song, “The Holy City.” This got the most unanimous and prolonged standing ovation of the night.

Turner, Phillips, and Shaw: Not bad at all for local talent, right?

Note: Because my availability and decision to attend the concert was literally at the last minute, I didn’t have either a camera to take pictures—which I most certainly regret!—or a pen to note a set list. Yet the evening was so incredible that I had to capture what I could from memory alone!

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