Alabama 3…Where to begin?
For quite some time I have placed them in the “chancers” box. Ocean Colour Scene are still out there milking their acoustic sets, Aslan will still be protecting this crazy world when they’re 6ft under, the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble know how to ride the hole (literally) out of our spud warrior nation and joining that list for many years has to be Brixton’s favourite dysfunctional family, Alabama 3.
Tonight’s crowd is like a pick n mix. On my way into the venue, three sauced-up
mature ladies are singing ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ as they attempt to climb the stairs into the venue. Pausing on the first layover one of them utters “I feel like I’m in London” while the other responds “Oxegen VIP, outta of the way” while flashing her stamped hand. All three stumble from the hallway light into the venue’s darkness in hysterics. The H&M and Penneys bags are quickly abandoned as they set up shop in front of the stage.
Local veterans Pavlov’s Dogs kick things off with a stripped down acoustic set. What many might not know is that guitarist Darrin Mullins and vocalist Paul Power are former members of The Driven. A hugely successful Irish band that caused quite the stir in the late 90′s with Kerrang and the NME, the single ‘Jesus Loves You More If You Can Drive’ landing them slots with Weezer and The Stereophonics at the time. Pavlov’s Dogs however are far from what The Driven were about. Here the focus is on rootsy soul rock. The open D tuning lets Mullins cater for some southern style sliding while the bass heavy growl of frontman Paul Power has me craving a whiskey or two. Cravings refused, Pavlov’s Dogs do what they do very well. Some could write it off as bland pub rock but in this stripped down setting that’s easy to say. There were plenty of great little riffs in tonight’s set and I have no doubt that fans of the genre would enjoy what they have to offer even more so in their normal amped up guise. “It’s a long way down and a hard motherfucking climb back“, wails Power as Pavlov’s Dogs wrap up their nicely paced set.
As Alabama 3 take stage, the venue is pretty rammed to say the least. With 9 albums under their belt, there is no shortage of set either. Frontman Larry Love is decked out in a Hawaiian shirt with a hefty gold chain wrapped around his neck, while vocalist Aurora Dawn looks like she just stepped in from the set of Womack & Womack’s ‘Teardrops’ promo. Opening with ‘Converted’, the first track from their debut album Exile on Coldharbour Lane (1997), the band accompanied by co-founder The Very Reverend Dr. D. Wayne Love preach in unison “Let’s go back to Church“. The crowd are singing loud and clapping along with vocalist Aurora Dawn. A huge pop is given to Love’s mention of Cork City, replacing the original lyrics without batting an eyelid.
The hugely successful ‘Woke Up This Morning’ follows. Known to most for soundtracking The Sopranos, I was full sure this would have been the encore gem (a la Aslan and co with ‘Crazy World’). Little did I know they were just warming up. Again the band are out for a cheap pop replacing some lyrics with the name of the support band. “I see ya woke up this mornin’ – the world turned upside down – lordy, but a-things ain’t been the same – since Pavlov’s Dogs walked into town“. Afer a rapturous applause, Love has the crowd in sync as he shouts “woop, woop, it’s da sound of da police“. As the song progresses, Love pulls out a scrap of paper before quickly name dropping Pavlov’s Dogs one more time in the song’s lyrics. One too many glasses of wine causes Larry to call for the back up.
On stage the dysfunctional family tag isn’t all that evident. Although The Very Reverend Dr. D. Wayne looks baked out of his box, the rest of the band seem to function well. The acoustic set is obviously well rehearsed and if anything Love is clear and precise when delivering between-song banter. Also joining Alabama 3 on this tour is backing vocalist Sister Francesca Love. Although it was obvious she was well on it when stepping out of the cab outside earlier in the night, she was in flying form on stage. Her distinctively powerful vocal telling us to “Find Heaven” as she claps and stomps.
Although some might have been “Converted” on tonight’s opening track, it’s only now I see the appeal to join the church of AA (Alabama 3 Anonymous). The sheer mention of the three letter entity that is the IMF is met with a hostile repsonse on ‘Barricade’, before Love gives a nod to “any eco-warriors in the house?” with ‘Stop the Rain’, a response to the effect of climate change. On ‘Facebook.con’ Love reminds us post-song that “kids should be out having a session in the pub on a Thursday insted of talking shite over the fucking internet“. Never a more worthwhile statement.
By the time we get to ‘Woodie Guthrie’, not only are the H&M and Penneys bags abandoned but so too is the Mary Byrne lookalike’s friends, drinks and table as she is now on stage. Her first port of call is The Very Reverend Dr. D. Wayne as he shuffles quickly away. Instead he moves to his left opting for a hefty swig of Guinness to avoid being bearhugged to death. On stage, the rest of the band don’t bat an eye-lid as the well on it Mary Byrne look-a-like positions herself comfortably beside Sister Francesca. As Mary (for now anyway) waddles back and forth, she moves closer to the mic for every chorus but as the rest of the band deliver “I don’t need no country – I don’t fly no flag – I cut no slack for the Union Jack – Stars and stripes have got me jet-lagged yeah” – Mary..just kind of mumbles along while waving her hands on the air. She wanders off stage when she feels like it, while it seems to be business as usual as the band (some unaware of what just happened, others quite aware) keep firing em out.
‘Don’t call the doctor’ gets the biggest applause of the night and deservedly so. This is the band at their best. Love tells the crowd, “hey, don’t listen to your doctors” to which the crowd cheer, before sealing it with “unless you have fucking two of em” which is greeted with an even bigger response.
I remeber Alan McGee (Creation Records) saying that he signed people and
characters, if the music was good that was a bonus. I would put Alabama 3 in that category for sure. They are as true to working class Britain as you are likely to find. At this stage in their career it would be easy to hang it up and enjoy The Sopranos royalty cheques but this lot live it and breath it and guess what? It doesn’t end there.
‘U don’t dance to techno’ has the whole floor on its feet, the crowd’s state somewhat reminiscent of the end of a long wedding day. Finishing with another one of the band’s classics ‘Hello..I’m Johnny Cash’, the crowd have taken upon themselves to deliver their own call and response improv vocals (a la McCartney on a ‘Hey Jude’ flashback).
With lyrics about cocaine and Polish hookers, I have no doubt that Love and co have had their fair share of overindulgence, as they make their way back to the stage puffing cigarettes like they’re off to make a cuppa at home. Each member of the band armed with a glass of red wine, two glasses in some case. As the drinks are placed by the monitors the band deliver the opening chords of Joy Division’s
‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. Harpo Strangelove’s harmonica acting as the lead. Just as things were getting going, Mary, who was now sitting up against the front of the stage has fallen backwards on to the stage, knocking Love’s and Strangelove’s drinks all over the shop. As the song is stopped Strangelove does his best to pick her up. Not an easy task as the deadweight suddenly rolls to the left, taking two monitors with her as she crashes to the floor. Vocalist Aurora Dawn and frontman Larry Love (along with a good proportion of the crowd) bite their lips trying to hold in the laughter. Aurora can’t help but piss herself before Love does the same. After many attempts to pick Mary up, her original port of call The Very Reverend Dr. D. Wayne Love comes to the rescue. As he’d pass for a pro wrestler the doc has no problem picking Mary off the ground. He wraps her arms around him and dances with Mary on the floor as the band finally get around to soundtracking them with ‘Love
Will Tear Us Apart’. Mary is in her element as the doc holds his hand high spinning her around on the floor. The whole scene, coupled with the band’s soft and powerful take on the track, has Aurora in tears. She does her best to hide it by turning around and pulling her shades down. The Doc is back on stage now, he grabs Aurora by the hand and sings the hook with her “Love, love will tear us apart again”. I wonder if it’s the memories of past members, Larry’s fondness for a drink or ten, or a subtle reminder that moments like these should be cherished, that have upset her. Either way she pulls it together before the set finishes and the band leave the stage.
The last sound coming through the speakers is a delayed vocal by Love, crafted on the spot by the soundman. Love jumps from the stage still tuned in to the warped echo that blasts through the venue and makes a bee-line towards the sound desk. “Fuckin nice one man, fucking nice one” before muttering “I need a fucking fag” to himself as he wanders through the crowd towards the dressing room.
Any previous notions I may have had about Alabama 3 have been cast aside. They don’t have anything left to prove to anyone. They’ve released some great albums and some dodgy albums, have toured the world numerous times over and, as mentioned earlier, could probably live off The Sopranos royalties if need be. Instead they have opted to do what they do best, it’s not about money nor is it about milking the balls out of us spud warriors. Alabama 3 are the real deal, just like that Alan McGee quote. Above all though, Alabama 3 know best what they’re all about and although they may not admit it, I have a funny feeling that the 3 stands for one thing. Rock n’ Roll.