ROTHBURY, Mich. – “Robert! Earl! Keen!” Of all the things you could possibly expect a couple of overserved British techno musicians to shout at a jamband-centric festival in upstate Michigan two weeks ago, a Texas fratboy chant circa 1995 is among the most unlikely. But Rob (alias “Larry Love”) Spragg and Jake (“Rev. D. Wayne Love”) Black of Alabama 3 are crazy about Texas music and when they find out Keen is also on the bill they lustily sang “The Road Goes On Forever” in the artist lounge. Although the wordy tune has been nicknamed “The Song Goes On Forever (And the Lyrics Never End”), the A3 pair sang the saga of Sonny and Sherry all the way through, not missing a verse, then laughed and high-fived when Sherry drives away in her new Mercedes-Benz. “She was the gangster, that tart,” Black said in a stewed Scottish accent that could’ve just as well been saying “Shoot the gangster with a dart.” But that wouldn’t make sense.
What does, when you’re talking about Alabama 3, who have the luck and timing of a man executed an hour before midnight? Billed as A3 in the States because superhack country band Alabama has better lawyers than songs, this is the band that recorded a genius cover of John Prine’s “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” in 1997, then rendered it unplayable on the KGSRs of the world by dropping gratuitous F-bombs. Absurdity guides the techno/country/gospel/blues band everyone’s heard (that’s their “Woke Up This Morning” on “The Sopranos” opening), but no one’s heard of (their name was never shown on the “Sopranos” credits). Their first full band U.S. tour in almost nine years was merely a hastily promoted week of gigs in half-filled clubs and second stages of festivals earlier this month. And I was there for 40 percent of it.
“It’s rather pointless,” synth programmer and harmonica player Piers (aka “Mountain of Love”) Marsh said after a July 4 show at the Cubby Bear in Chicago drew 33 people. Par for the cursed course, the mini-tour is to promote a retrospective album on a label they’re no longer on. Captain Spragg and his gang of musical pirates seem born under the same bad sign as the protagonist of “Woke Up This Morning.” Instead of capitalizing on “Sopranos” fever, Alabama 3 stayed home in the Brixton section of London, cashing those royalty checks and cutting obscure, roots-flavored dance tracks that appealed mainly to dope fiends and literary figures (their diehards include Stephen King, Irvine Welsh, Nick Tosches and the late Hubert Selby Jr., who charged A3 a dollar to sample his spoken word record).
Trafficking in an exotic hodgepodge of sounds both rooted and interstellar, Spragg said Alabama 3 is steered by a unique attitude: “The reason you need us is because we don’t need you.” Still, conquering America became a priority after an ultra-successful unplugged stint at South by Southwest in March. “They killed,” said SXSW director Roland Swenson, who recalled that La Zona Rosa looked half-filled because the crowd was packed in front of the stage, hanging on every word.
“It’s important for us to make a go in the States,” said Spragg, 43, who’s planning to spend a few months recharging in Austin later this year. He wants to write new songs and perform once a week with Alabama 3’s acoustic configuration, featuring vocalist Zoe Devlin. “We need to get away from the drug dealers in London,” said Devlin, a 23-year-old Billie Holiday devotee who deserves a special citation for touring with this lot.
“There’s a filthy black cloud of doom hanging over Alabama 3,” keyboardist Orlando Harrison wrote in his “The Spirit Speaks” blog. “On waking the next day, my relief at not being dead is somewhat mitigated by my disappointment at finding Larry alive.” The desperate tension calls for gallons of booze and sneaky bathroom breaks.
Standing in a Michigan field at midnight, I had to ask why I flew to Chicago and drove four hours north in a rented car I’d have to sleep in, to see a band that nobody cares about. Even though I was writing the adventure up for the Austin American Statesman, I was traveling on my dime. I had my answer when A3 came onstage and opened with “Too Sick To Pray,” a haunting, slow-building number that contains some of Spragg’s most haunting lyrics. When they followed with the massively danceable “Hypo Full of Love,” another one of those songs that mixes intravenous drug use with spirituality, several fresh-faced groovers, obviously unfamiliar with the group, looked at each other with expressions that said “Can you believe what we’re seeing?”
Alabama 3 is the embodiment of everything I love about music. They take the great American forms – gospel, country, blues – and wrap them up in adventurous beats to create a new sound. They’re crazed, rebellious necromancers, communicating with the spirits of the dead in order to influence the future. They make dance music for folks who haven’t danced in years.
I’ve had several musical soulmates through the years, starting with the Monkees when I was a kid, then the Rolling Stones, then Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello and the Attractions. In the past 20 years I’ve had three musical obsessions: the Pogues in the late ’80s, Oasis in the mid-’90s and Alabama 3 currently. I thought there would never be a record that makes me feel like the Pogues’ “Rum, Sodomy and the Lash” or the first Oasis album. I thought I was too burnt out on music to ever again be an infatuated fan. And then last month I got “Hits and Exit Wounds,” the new A3 retrospective on One Little Indian, and I listened to little else for a week. “Hits and Exit Wounds” is the kind of album where you have a different favorite song every day. Like the gospel numbers whose titles they often copy (“Woke Up This Morning” is also the title of a Mississippi Fred McDowell song about Jesus), Alabama 3 slowly builds intensity in their songs until the spirit takes over.
As much as I was looking forward to finally seeing A3 in concert, I was a bit guarded about meeting the band and shadowing them for a few hours. I hung out with the Pogues and Oasis back in their respective heydays and it didn’t work out too well for my esteem. The Pogues were drunk and surly; Oasis called security. But despite their reputation as wasted scalawags, the members of Alabama 3 were intelligent and well-mannered, if not a little grumpy on a tour bus whose front benches were occupied by bags from Devlin’s recent shopping spree. We did most of our talking in the artist lounge, where Black and Harrison were fixtures and Spragg and Devlin popped in from time to time. The rest of the band seemed to stay on the bus until showtime, or maybe they wandered through Rothbury’s Sherwood Forest or visited the world’s largest canned goods sculpture.
Black and Welchman Spragg formed the group in the late ’80s with the idea to fuse samples of Hank Williams with “acid house” beats. The son of a Mormon preacher, Spragg was also well-versed in the gospel songbook and his deep, haunting bellow was a perfect match for the gritty blues of Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley. “There’s really not much difference between the juke joints on the edge of town and the big warehouses where they’d have raves,” Spragg said of the inspiration for A3’s unlikely fusion. “There’s a scent of illegality in both places.” With Black’s Rev. Love character injecting raps of crazed scripture and the kooky band member aliases with the surname “Love,” Alabama 3 was,
to many, a joke. The cowboy-hatted band, which took its name as a show of support for Britain’s wrongly imprisoned Birmingham Six, would surely soon crawl back under a big rock. But after they recorded their 1995 debut LP on a British indie label, Geffen became interested in the band and advanced Alabama 3 a million dollars to make “Exile On Coldharbour Lane.” In the band’s bio, Spragg admits at least half the advance was spent on “contraband,” but whatever performance-enhancing drugs were in play, “Exile” was a quirky masterwork, the album on which “Sopranos” creator David Chase heard “Woke Up This Morning.”
“Ten years ago we loaned one of our songs to Tony Soprano,” Spragg announced in a Chicago radio interview. “And we’ve come to get it back. We’re gangsters as well.” In American radio interviews, the agenda seemed to be, first, to let everyone know they’re the band on “The Sopranos” theme, and then to establish that they’ve got plenty more like “Woke Up This Morning.” Later Spragg said he’s made peace with the idea that his song is no longer his, but a mist of sound in the American pop-culture ether. “Once you write a song it doesn’t belong to you,” he said in the same menacing, Beefheartian growl that accompanies Tony Soprano’s drive from the Lincoln Tunnel through the North Jersey wasteland and onto the most famous driveway in TV history. “Songs belong to everybody.” When Alabama 3 opened with “Woke Up This Morning” at the Cubby Bear on the Fourth of July, it seemed as if they were trying to get it out of the way. With only 12 days notice before the show, a benefit for autism awareness, A3 drew about as well as “Paulie Walnuts Does Shakespeare.” But though there were just under three dozen fans, the band played like it was a crowd of 3,000. Spragg’s the perfect ringleader of this techno circus, but the Scotch-Malaysian beauty Devlin is emerging as a co-focal point. She moves like she’s got a direct line to the beat, which makes the lumbering presence of former main sidekick Black come off as clownish and out of place.
The dynamics are shifting, with A3 becoming more of a powerhouse show band. Thirty-three people on hand at the 300-capacity Cubby Bear and the band still got an encore. But true transcendency would wait until the next night in Rothbury. There’s a picture of that show, shot from behind the stage, and if you scour the crowd you can see me, transfixed front and center, about five rows back. In that moment, I’m not a critic, but a fan, multiplied by the music.
It’s been such a long time.
It’s true. I needed Alabama 3 because they didn’t need me. In a world where artists are trying so hard to increase their fanbase and build their brand and drive traffic to the Web site, here’s one that says “take us or leave us.” It’s refreshing to be in the company of a great band of musicians who don’t try to control anything until they’re on the stage or in the studio. How could I drop everything, book a flight to Chicago, then drive to Michigan and stand in a field to watch Alabama 3 on their first U.S. tour in almost nine years? How could I not?