Rumours abound that the latest incarnation of Alabama 3 will be minus the cowboys, minus the country, minus the techno – minus, in short – everything that makes them Alabama 3. It has even been said that they might have gone (shhh, whisper it) seventies rock on us.
Images of Justin Hawkins in shades and a snakeskin jumpsuit drawling his way through Woke Up This Morning are growing larger and larger in my mind’s eye as dry ice billows out from the back of the stage during the protracted build-up. What is taking them so long? It must be getting into those jumpsuits, it does look a tricky business.
Finally, when the roadies are eventually sure that there’s no chance of anyone in the audience being able to see or breathe through the toxic plastic mist, the lights go out and the music drops. The silence (such as it is, what with all the cheering and that) is broken by D Wayne Love as pilot radioing HQ over the blistering noise of an aeroplane that sounds as if it could genuinely be coming in to land in the Met Bar. This decibel level must be breaking some laws.
The darkness (small ‘d’) is dealt with in a similarly offensive way – The Brightest Lights In The History Of Lights burst from the ceiling and the back of the stage, reducing our pupils to smackhead pinprick proportions. That’s three of our five senses fucked already and the band aren’t even onstage yet.
But any fears of a style meltdown vanish as the band – how many are they? Nine? Thirty? – appear looking glorious in head-to-toe white. Alabama 3 look like a shimmy of Elvises. Elviss. Elvi. White shirts, white jeans, white stetsons, maybe this is some people’s idea of a style meltdown, but those people are idiots.
Exploding into new single Lockdown, it’s quickly apparent that the dark days are gone. A couple of albums in the depths of hell praying for redemption have paid off, and this version of Alabama 3 have clearly been granted it. The souped-up bigband Elvis vibe runs through all the new material they ply us with tonight, and for a band with such a dedicated cult following and a massive back catalogue covering comedy, country and techno, it’s a brave move to play such a disproportionate number of new tunes. But the new mood is joyful, and perhaps puncturing it with some darker moments would have ruined it. As it is, we’re carried through this unfamiliar territory for a while on wave after wave of gospel-inspired ecstasy, the pure soaring voice of diva Devlin Love meeting Larry Love’s filthy growl over a perpetual bouncing giant of a beat. Our ears bleed, but it feels like penance.
Everyone’s favourite fuck-up, the Reverend D Wayne Love, joins his congregation to advocate a Hypo Full of Love, wearing black, being as likely to wear white to church as Britney is for her next wedding. As he preaches personably through the 12-step plan, the rest of the band duck and sway in unison, it’s a beautiful sight. Not quite as lovely, however, as that special moment during Mao Tse Tung Says, which sees the band and most of the audience stand quiet and still, left fists in the air, during a revolutionary rant, or the end of the well-deserved enchore when guitarist Rock Freebase gets chance to widdle all over the stage by himself like you can tell he’s been wanting to all night. Of the previous albums, airing is given to some of the best tunes. We get a bit of U Dont Dans 2 Tekno, some Power In The Blood, Sopranos theme Woke Up This Morning of course, and a hair-raisingly holy Up Above My Head.
Being only the second night this particular set has been played, there are a couple of hiccups with the Spirit of Love being a bit too quick on the buttons and beginning the wrong song, but anything that provokes an onstage tongue-lashing from the wry Reverend can only enhance the show. For hardcore fans who might have whinged about the absence of their favourite tunes (I did, a bit), most of them are played almost-live later, when Larry, Devlin and D Wayne take to the mics and decks at their aftershow party down the road at the Woolly Llama, where they continue to entertain fans until the early hours. No wonder they don’t tour that often, it looks an exhausting business, being Alabama 3.