They've been hailed as "the hippest septuagenarians on the planet" and their singing gives blues legend Charlie Musselwhite the goosebumps.

The Blind Boys of Alabama are as much at home on the TV talk show circuit as they are alongside Lou Reed in one of the most hypnotic tracks from his Raven album - a seven-minute workout on I Wanna Know (The Pit and the Pendulum).

They're here to play the Auckland Town Hall, and audiences should be prepared for spiritual conversion.


I catch up with Ricky McKinnie, the group's drummer and tour manager, who's quick to tell me the Boys have just been inducted into the Gospel Hall of Fame, and been awarded a Dove Award for best Traditional Gospel Album of the Year.

This - and the two Grammies earned by their last two albums - is not surprising, McKinnie says.

"We have really been doing a great job. The Blind Boys have come a long way."

At 50, he's one of the younger members of the group, the real old-timers being Clarence Fountain, Jimmy Carter and George Scott, who teamed up as schoolboys in the 1930s.

"Jimmy and Clarence led the trail for the Blind Boys, Clarence has a great insight and we had the ability to go along with him and enhance the group," says McKinnie.

In 1948 the group's first single was I Can See Everybody's Mother but Mine. These days their repertoire has been pepped up a little, and on their latest CDs you'll find songs by Tom Waits, Ben Harper, Prince and Jimmy Cliff among the gospel standards. Inspiration for this came from outside the group.

"Our producer John Chelew came along with some good ideas. We said, 'Let us see them', and picked some out. Every song had a message, we looked at the messages and liked them."

And how might a hardcore gospel audience cope when Funkadelic's You and Your Folks segues into the 23rd Psalm?

"It's not a worry because we mainly sing to the masses and we try to relate to each person on an individual basis. We sing straight from the heart with music from the heart that reaches the heart."

I try to coax McKinnie to talk about the gospel greats such as Mahalia Jackson, the Soul Stirrers and Dorothy Love Coates.

Aretha Franklin's 1972 Amazing Grace album comes up and McKinnie acknowledges Franklin's song Spirit in the Dark, which gets a solid workout on the Boys' latest album - "Aretha did a great job with it and we just thought we would take a chance with it ourselves".

He adds a vehement afterthought: "Her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin was a great preacher."

Has gospel music been underrated alongside blues and r'n'b?

"It all started with the gospel, all that music is derived from gospel music.

"To know how to sing from the heart you have to be able to reach your inner self, and the only way you can reach your inner self to the highest degree is through the soul."

The Blind Boys' latest album, Higher Ground, is one terrific disc, from its soulful version of Curtis Mayfield's People Get Ready to its inspirational closer, Precious Lord.

But most of the songs would indeed soar to higher ground in a live performance.

McKinnie agrees. "When we're performing live you get exactly what it is, you get the Blind Boys with their musicians and their singers.

"We can ad lib a bit and let the music flow and make it happen, reach out and touch people. If people are high in energy we pull them in, if they're low in energy we try to bring them up."

So what the world needs now, despite Hal David's observation to the contrary, is obviously more music?

"I think music is very important," is McKinnie's judgment. "It has a way of lifting up a head that is bowed down and putting a smile in the heart because what seems to be a bad day can be a better day.

"And today we need it more than ever. Right now. And I feel like there won't be any peace until God is seated at the conference table."

McKinnie is frustratingly non-committal on a succession of musical questions. The interview trails to an end but suddenly it's promo time, given out in a style halfway between preacher and nightclub MC.

"I just want to say we appreciate that everybody is playing our music and listening to our music throughout the years.

"We want to thank you for giving us this opportunity to do this interview because we've found out that without people there wouldn't be any Blind Boys of Alabama or any other group.

"So we just appreciate the people and just want to say God bless and ask you people to be sure to come out and see the Blind Boys if you want to have a good time.

"If you got a bowed-down head, if you feel like things are not going right, come on out. We're gonna make you happy."

* At 8pm tonight.