For some of us, one of the more satisfying moments in recent country music history came 2 years ago during the Academy of Country Music Awards show. There the members of Alabama sat in aisle seats, smug looks on faces, sporting sequined Admirals' uniforms and other suitably respectful attire, waiting to snork up their yearly pile of awards. And there they continued to wait, as new-traditionalists such as Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam walked by with all the trophies.
Maybe it was cruel to enjoy their discomfiture but it can't be any more cruel than what Alabama continues to do to country music, evidenced most recently by the group's deposit of treacly effluvium Friday evening at the Pacific Amphitheatre.
As Lionel Richie did with R&B, Alabama for over a decade has diluted country music--a form prized for its directness and honesty--into a bland, contrived, crossover form, closer in several respects to disco than country. But not surprisingly, after its awards trouncing, Alabama discovered that, whoa, hey, they had a passel of roots too and recorded the "Just Us" album, achieving a real-life country frankness and raw roots feel equal, perhaps, to Wings' "Magneto and Titanium Man."
The strength of their conversion to country tradition was heralded by the group's stage entrance Friday, involving flashing strobes, fog, a pulsing synthesizer dance beat and a stage design that looked like a cross between a starship bridge and a strip-mall yogurt shop.
In the show that followed, singer Randy Owen and Co. didn't short the audience on length, performing some 25 songs. But each of those songs sounded like little more than commercials for a very weak beer. At its best--as on "Love in the First Degree" and "Lady Down on Love"--Alabama embellished its forgettable melodies with well-crafted vocal harmonies, and on "Song of the South" they even conveyed a modestly intelligent lyric about the changing south.
But most often, the material was no less pandering than Owen's continual "We love you (fill in regional area here)!" interjections. His "The Fans" was a smarmy wet kiss that, in comparison, makes Kenny Rogers seem a pillar of sincerity.
Perhaps the lowest point of the show was bass player Teddy Gentry's "The Borderline," a miniseries vision of a cowboy trail ballad, so removed from real grit and feeling that it could make Marty Robbins puke in his grave.
The quartet played and sang competently throughout the show, but only competently. Though Alabama guitarist/fiddler Jeff Cook put a lot of facial expressions into his solos, only hired guitarist Larry Hanson's picking had any fire to it (the group also employed an outside keyboardist). Nowhere was the aggregate mediocrity of the band more evident than on the encore, which included covers of "Land of 1,000 Dances" and Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama." Countless bar bands have played these songs, and nearly any could have churned the tunes out with more color and passion than Alabama did.