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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Small Venue Lets Alabama Get Personal : The Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts affords the group, used to large crowds, an intimate setting in which to reveal a fresh, human side--and rediscover its roots.

August 18, 1993|NOEL DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

CERRITOS — Alabama has long been accustomed to the adrenaline rush of performing for huge crowds, but Monday night at the intimate Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, lead singer Randy Owen became reacquainted with the risks of being eyeball-to-eyeball with a small group of fans.

About halfway through Alabama's two-hour set, Owen launched into "Katy," a quiet ballad the band has recently recorded for its next album. Seated on the edge of the circular, revolving stage about two feet from the front row, Owen looked right at two fans who were making faces at him. Disconcerted, he suddenly forgot the lyrics.

Instead of getting upset, Owen seemed to welcome the opportunity to show that behind this country supergroup are four men who are still fallible human beings.

A decade ago, Alabama was the first country act to use the high-powered techniques of arena rock in its concerts. Now even such straightforward country singers as Clint Black and Alan Jackson use elaborate stage sets, video projections and high-tech imagery.

On its most recent tour, however, Alabama has traded the large arenas and amphitheaters that are its usual stamping ground in favor of smaller venues such as the 1,710-seat Cerritos center, where the quartet plays through Thursday.

During the first few songs Monday, it appeared that Alabama had just taken its usual stadium-ready stage show and crammed it into a smaller hall.

Alabama opened with its recent hit, "Take a Little Trip," and segued immediately into two of its trademark upbeat concert staples, "If You're Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Hand)" and "She and I." Owen delivered the songs with the mega-gestures he uses in huge arenas.

He clapped his hands above his head and waved his arm in a broad arc as though he were trying to communicate to folks who were 600 rather than six feet away. "How're y'all doing!" he shouted at the top of his lungs.

Alabama's four core musicians--Owen, guitarist Jeff Cook, bassist Teddy Gentry and drummer Mark Herndon--were augmented by two additional guitarists and a keyboards player.

The extra musicians gave Alabama the big sound that may be necessary in a stadium, but within the small walls of the Cerritos theater only succeeded in draining the personality out of the music.

The character of the show abruptly changed after the opening salvo, however, when Owen paused and really began to talk to the audience. Wandering around the edge of the stage and sometimes even venturing into the seats, Owen discussed his life and his feelings in a remarkably candid manner.

He talked about the illness that had caused Alabama to reschedule its May shows--he had suffered minor chest pains and had been ordered to rest--and shared his feelings about a career which has taken the group from rowdy bars to venues like the Cerritos center.

"I'm a simple country boy," Owen said, looking around the theater in wonder. "I've never seen a more beautiful place. This is a long way from those bars where they strung chicken wire across the stage."

Owen used his discussion of country values as a lead-in for a segment of three of Alabama's more traditionally country-sounding songs: "Jukebox on My Mind," "Born Country" and "High Cotton."

Although in a stadium those numbers can seem like mere button-pushing cliches about the virtues of rural living, in the more personal context of Monday's show they took on new life and relevance to Alabama's roots. For example, before they sang "High Cotton," Owen told the audience about his experiences picking cotton in his youth.

Although Alabama played many of its signature hits, including "Mountain Music," "Old Flame" and "The Closer You Get," the band also introduced several new songs and played some lesser-known numbers, including "Deep River Woman," the group's 1986 collaboration with Lionel Richie.

The result was a fresh look at an overly familiar group and a chance to appreciate that inside these country superstars real human hearts still beat.

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