By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The Cincinnati Zoo's new "Wild Nights at the Zoo" concert series, produced by WCIN as part of its 50th anniversary celebration, got off to a very bad start Monday night, as headliner Etta James refused to perform in a dispute over payment.
The cancellation came after a solid opening set by the Blind Boys of Alabama and after the crowd of about 1,000 had waited for the R&B great for almost an hour in sporadic, drizzling rain.
WCIN air personality Courtis Fuller, who was hosting the concert, told the audience that James' band bus was on site but that her personal bus was on the way. At 9:30, he made the announcement that she wouldn't be performing, giving no reason for the cancellation. However, a source close to the concert said that the low turnout wasn't enough to pay James' fee and that she refused to accept a check, canceling her show.
All tickets purchased at the zoo were refunded immediately. Tickets bought elsewhere will be refunded at point of purchase.
Cloudy skies and cool temperatures put a damper on the evening from the start, but the Blind Boys spirit-filled opening set quickly turned that around, getting the racially-mixed crowd on its feet, shouting and clapping hands to the venerable group's irresistible Southern gospel.
Leader Clarence Fountain sat for most of the 55-minute set, leaving the heavy lifting to his partner Jimmy Carter, the primary lead singer and the other long-time member of the group, formed in 1939 at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind. Carter was a walking miracle, his voice sounding better at the end of the show than at the start. His performance included a lengthy walk through the crowd in the zoo's pavilion, singing into a wireless microphone like a man possessed.
The group mixed contemporary songs, including Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground," the title cut of their newest Grammy-winning CD, and one Ben Harper wrote for them, "I Shall Not Walk Alone," with more "churchy" music, as Fountain called it.
The "churchy" stuff was by the far the best, mixing raw-silk harmonies with powerful lead singing and a relentless, syncopated beat. Several older women leapt to their feet in ecstatic dance as the Blind Boys turned Monday night into Sunday morning.
As much as they loved the Blind Boys, most of the crowd was there for James. But with Saturday-night-at-Music-Hall prices ($50 and $40) for a Monday night at the zoo, the concert just couldn't draw enough people to pay for itself.
June 29, WCIN and the zoo will try again with the next concert on the series, the Neville Brothers and Michael McDonald.
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