It’s been a long time coming but Brixton’s perennial sharp-shooters Alabama 3 are once again hungry for that “Sweet Pretty Muthafuckin Country Acid House Music.” The unholy congregation of talent who put the menace into ‘The Sopranos’ and whose lifestyle choices have frequently put both Keith Richards and Old Nick himself to shame have just completed an epic collection of shows, dedicated to founding member Jake Black, AKA The Very Reverend Dr. D. Wayne Love, who died on 21 May 2019.
To mark the occasion, their old Hey Negrita touring buddy Felix Bechtolsheimer and his current award winning band Curse Of Lono were drafted as support. Although Curse Of Lono have experience of the bigger stage these days, this was an opportunity to show their Bristol fanbase that they’re not all about the smaller clubs that usually bring them to town. But size is no barrier nor advantage to these acclaimed British Americana high rollers. Drummer Neil Findlay assembled his modest kit up front alongside bassist Charis Anderson, their understanding honed to a razor edge, while to the left of the O2 stage, guitar player Joe Hazell and keys man Dani Ruiz Hernandez were having the time of their life. Holding court with his usual swagger was the enigmatic Felix who owns any stage that finds itself under the devil in his shoes.
The Lono’s sound has no respect for club, arena or stadium. It’s sensed as much as heard. Experienced as a moment in time, a turmoil of emotion in a cauldron of black humours and emerging faith, and they jealously guard it. They played almost a full-length set tonight, opening with the original EP number ‘London Rain’, a tale of destruction and cauterisation of the old, and ending with the catchy ‘Pick Up The Pieces’, the beginning of a new era, new relationships, new artistic direction. Bluesy, jazzy with the dark art of a Billy Corgan or Lou Reed seemingly unbecoming of such a cheery geezer as Bechtolsheimer. “See you at the bar!” he yells at the crowd, as Findlay grins and spins a drumstick and you know from experience that it’s not just an idle threat.
Alabama 3 are a savage mongrel hybrid that changes with the seasons and never knows when it’s time to hang up its hat. Listening to the A3 devotees at the O2 Academy, you can never be sure who or what to expect at any one show. Are we in for a rave? A hoedown? A narcotics-infested, fire and brimstone thunder preaching fest? One thing’s for sure at the First Presleyterian Church of Elvis the Divine, it’s going to be loud and it’s going to mean something.
This time it’s all about founding member Jake Black, and the homage is performed true to the theology of the Alabama 3 – its clergy gathered around a huge statue of Black, who stared soundlessly out over a mesmerising scene. Tributes were led by Larry Love in full Elvis costume before the strains of ‘Love Me Tender’ die away amid scenes of the Delta. Attention turned to the scripture of tonight’s sermon and the record that began this journey; ‘Exit From Coldharbour Lane’ has been re-released to coincide with this tour and it is a work of such unique equations as to evade all reasonable attempts at categorisation. Obviously the danger-infused ‘Woke Up This Morning’ with its gospel undertones is a big crowd-pleaser because of its association with David Chase and his monumental TV mafia opus The Sopranos. But this is an entity of (as things currently stand) nine shape-shifters, morphing around the edges of the musical underworld. ‘Too Sick To Pray’ and ‘The Night We Nearly Got Busted’ are trailer trash outlaw country like Cash in a parallel universe. John Prine was covered on the album and they make no bones about their Southern roots; after all, they’re from Brixton. Two decades of festivals mean that putting on a performance is par for the course and the crowd were dancing to the tune in every sense tonight.
The question mark hanging over A3 has always been whether they are a novelty act or the real deal, so let’s put that one finally to bed. Yes, they have a tongue in cheek approach to their whisky-soaked, Southern influences. Sure, they infuse it all with acid, techno beats, samplers and sequencers. And yes, they are the real deal. ‘Exit…’ was played in its entirety tonight and it is a truly sublime work of Americana – made in Brixton. ‘Hypo Full Of Love (the 12 step plan)’ with its “Shoot em up” chorus is decadent folly at its grandest and word is that there’ll be a new album in 2020 with an up and coming new London label. In the words of keys player Orlando Harrison aka The Spirit, “And why shouldn’t we have a comeback, Leonard Cohen did it”.
The mongrel hybrid that becomes a greyhound when the curtain goes up is alive and salivating. Still devoted to the same creed, first ordained at the altar of the ultimate congregation of Mashville. And just about as festive as a crack house in February.
RIP The Very Reverend Dr. D. Wayne Love. And Long live the Alabama 3.
Photos: Keira Cullinane, Tim Merricks