Alabama 3 Live At The Astoria

MTV eviscerated the experience.  Acts started swinging for the fences.  It became about image, it was no longer about experience.  It was as if Broadway plays were suddenly broadcast live on television every night.  And they toured arenas.  What was once intimate, what was once only seen in the dark, what was once a religious experience amongst very few, became a lowest common denominator state fair exhibition.

Make no mistake.  There’s magic in those records.

But there used to be magic in the live shows too.

I’m not talking about the magic you experience seeing the Rolling Stones with 50,000 other souls.  Rather, I’m speaking of the electric jolt you feel in a club, a small hall, with only like-minded people in attendance.  I’m not speaking of checking something out for the first time, going to drink beer with your buddies, but making a pilgrimage to the venue, just to catch a glimpse of the act whose record you’ve played to death.  When the lights come up, when the act takes the stage, there’s an adrenaline jolt far exceeding that from any drug.  You feel fully alive.  This is what you’re on the planet for, to experience THIS!

It’s got nothing to do with corporations.  Nothing to do with piracy.  It’s as old as time.  A group of human beings gathering to be entertained, to be enlightened.

Now the old English acts, most especially Cream, they let the music do the talking.  They hardly moved, they just played their instruments.  And, oftentimes, music is enough.  But sometimes there’s a bit more, a bit of role-playing, a bit of acting, a bit of theatre.  The Tubes were the apotheosis.  The records, and the first is brilliant, didn’t do justice to the stage show.  And, interestingly, the Tubes didn’t make much of a dent in the U.S., certainly not in their art rock A&M days, but in the U.K., they were stars.

It’s different in the U.K.  You don’t need years of musical education, you just need the desire.  To get up on stage and DO IT!  It can almost be talent show-like.  That guy you were just standing next to at the urinal, suddenly he’s up on stage, letting out elements of his personality you couldn’t conceive of, showing off, saying LOOK AT ME!

Oh, they’ve got two-dimensional stars in England too.  But they’ve also got a vibrant scene of real players.  They might not be that skilled, not that well-rehearsed, but their ENERGY, it translates.  And, they seem to know the basic rule of art, that it’s not about professional execution but CONCEPTION!  Anybody can learn to play, but WHAT you play is much more important.  Can you test the boundaries, can you deliver what’s not expected, can you WOW people.

You woke up this morning
Got yourself a gun
Mama always said you’d be
The Chosen One.

Maybe you only know the version of Alabama 3’s "Woke Up This Morning" from "The Sopranos", you haven’t heard the original from "Exile On Coldharbour Lane".  With its intro story, about a long, debauched evening out on the tiles.  There’s an earthy organ accompanying the story, as if you’re in an alternative church, one in which drinking, drugging and fucking are worshipped.  Then, the drum starts to kick, the bass guitar starts to pump, and Larry Love starts singing the above lyrics.  If the Grammy Awards featured music like this, then I’d believe.  But they’re so busy playing to everyman, they’ve abandoned us, the real fans, the true believers.  Then again, the Grammys were always irrelevant, they never got it right.

And "The Sopranos" was too hot for network TV, they wanted to change it.  So, it debuted on the outlaw cable channel HBO.  And like "Smells Like Teen Spirit", it revolutionized the industry.

I believe "The Sopranos" is the best television show ever.  And, it’s not the Mafia story that puts it over the top, but the family drama.  The way Meadow manipulates her parents.  The way Carmella makes peace with what she doesn’t like by ignoring it.  Still, the show would lose at least ten percent of its value if it didn’t have its theme song.  I fast-forward through the intro song of every other series, but I let "Woke Up This Morning" play at the head of "The Sopranos".  It sets the mood.  Tony’s been out all night in the city, doing illicit and illegal things, and as the sun rises, he’s driving back to a suburbia that looks safe, but really isn’t.

After getting hooked on the show back in ’99, I tore my house apart looking for my copy of "Exile On Coldharbour Lane".  When I finally found it, I couldn’t stop playing it.  And it wasn’t only "Woke Up This Morning", it was "Ain’t Goin’ To Goa", and "Hypo Full Of Love", and over time the rest of the record hooked me too, I became an Alabama 3 fan.  I’ve got their second album, "La Peste", in my iTunes library.  So when a DVD of a live performance appeared in my mail today, I immediately threw it into my Mac.  Where it wouldn’t play.

You see it’s PAL!  Macs can play PAL.  But, with region coding, if I switch my machine to this format, it won’t play U.S. discs.

This is the kind of bullshit the MPAA insists upon.  Enforcing its WINDOWS of distribution.

So, feeling desperate, I fired up the PC.  Inserted the DVD.  Was confronted with some Microsoft gobbledy-gook, who knew there were FOUR CHOICES how to play a DVD, but it turns out the one I picked worked.

I heard the crowd noise.  Then the acid house music.

There was a burlesque dancer on stage.  Tattooed band members priming in the dressing room.  And then, a faux policeman led a prison-garbed Reverend D. Wayne Love on stage.  And, after the handcuffs were unlocked, D. Wayne, in that bizarre nasal voice, announced he was…JOHNNY FUCKING CASH!

What’s my name?
What’s my name?
Johnny Cash!

The organ is pumping in the background, the synth is repeating a pattern and Larry Love steps to the front of the stage and starts telling his story…

They had me at hello.

Something like this couldn’t happen in the U.S.  Where everybody takes himself so seriously.  Where everybody who picks up a guitar has got a lawyer and a ten year plan.  Stardom supersedes art.  But here, on this stage half a world away, was the essence of rock and roll.

I couldn’t believe it.  I lowered the blinds to see better.  I wanted to motion over my shoulder for everybody to come and SEE this.

But there was nobody there.

Oh, SOMEBODY’S there.  They’re just not in my abode.  They’re a continent and an ocean away.  I can see them in the audience.  They’re true believers.  They’re having the time of their lives.

I don’t get the DVD revolution.  I don’t want to own a performance.  I just want to see it once.

Then again, most of the shows people buy today have ALREADY been on television.

But here, it was like the sixties all over again.  I had an artifact.  That allowed me entrance into a whole world.  A hip world.  Populated by thinkers.  Out to challenge and excite me.  Not needing to make me believe they’re satan, but just playing roles, to challenge my preconceptions.

I’d like to tell you they kill "Woke Up This Morning".  But Larry Love’s vocal is not as good live as it on disc.  Still, "The 12 Step Plan (Hypo Full Of Love)" kills.  And tracks that never registered before penetrated, played by this crack band.

Look at it this way.  Did you ever watch "24 Hour Party People" and wish you’d been at the Hacienda?  Lamented the fact that the Manchester club was closed?  Well, watching this DVD, you’ll be stunned to learn the scene still survives.  One in which you had to BE THERE!  Where what happened at the show that very evening is the only thing that counts.

This is a read-only blog. E-mail comments directly to Bob.