Saturday, July 20, 2019

Alabama: Alabama Bound

purchase [Doc Watson]

As I noted last post, the train is a classic element of music from the south -be it the blues or country. Whether it is the rhythm of the wheels on the rails that matches the musical beat, the role the railroad played in the escape from the south, the resemblance of the whistle and some of the sounds you can get from the harmonica or the loneliness that can come from being on the road.

Herewith 3 versions in somewhat chronologichal order of the classic that combines once again Alabama and trains:


Doc & Merle :

Arlo Guthrie

and just for silliness:


Don't know why this didn't come to me sooner. Possibly because I could never work out who Alabama 1 and Alabama 2 might be, and possibly because I always need a smartarse comment to blot my copy. But, let's run with this, who would be 1 and 2? There have been a number of groups with alabama in their title, but fewer with that as their only name. But there are two. Namely, Alabama and Alabama. Presumably the dissolute aggregate of reprobates that formed the Alabama 3, and of whom there were more than 3, named themselves in respect of that......

 Of course they didn't, but quite why they did  remains a mystery, with as much info as I can muster included here. Plus what I have learnt, in the time honoured tradition of near duplicable names, in the USA the band are legally required to be known as A3. Under normal circumstances they would, I guess, also be a mere footnote in the history of odd UK bands who dabbled in country and related, never western, world famous in Islington and the strange festivals that crop up on the fringes of the UK circuit. (See also the Rockingbirds.) But luck came a'knocking and a'knocking big, when, in 1999, the makers of The Soprano's chose their song as the theme.

The band came together sometime in the early 90, the 2 main front men, Robert Spragg (AKA Larry Love) and Jake Black (AKA the Very Reverend Dr. D. Wayne Love), meeting at an acid-house party at a south London squat. Whether true or not, it's a great story, even if one the record companys struggled to buy into, most dismissing them as a novelty troupe. Not until 1997 did appear their debut, 'Exile of Coldharbour Lane', the title a play on the name of the Rolling Stones' 'Exile on Main Street', Coldharbour Lane being a historically disreputable road linking parts the South London Boroughs of Camberwell Green and Brixton. Many of their titles play similarly, with songs called 'Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlife' and 'The Devil Went Down to Ibiza.'

Chucking elements of country music into a blender with electronica and dance music might seem an unwieldy mix and it often is, and can often be a limited avenue to explore. There are few who have chosen any similar path, but, strangely, it is mid-period Chumbawamba, perhaps unsurprisingly on the same label, they remind me most, predominantly on account of the equivalently manic experience of the live show. For to get the point of this band requires the live experience, a maelstrom of lights, beats, flailing limbs and a feral audience at one with the ritual. I gave never been to a pentecostal church in the deep south, communing with serpents and talking in tongues, but my feel is that the frenzy therein may be kindred. It is no coincidence the early working name of the band was the First Presleyterian Church of Elvis the Divine (UK), the title giving a hint of their ethos, along with the stage names outlined above. (The parentheses here make me chuckle, wondering if the legals team had found a similarly entitled US organisation. STOP PRESS, they did!)

Astonishingly the band have made it to 20, seemingly constantly on the road. Their last record, 'Blues', their 6th or 12th, depending on the degree of official attached thereto, came out in 2016, designed to bring in the feel of the delta blues the acoustic offshoot of the band had been touring alongside the bigger and noisier version. Whilst the album is the big band version of that, it, against expectation, works, showing off arguably better the genuine love and feel for the musical styles distilled in the band. When, suddenly, Jake Black died earlier this year, I felt this would be the death knell of the band, but far from it. Indeed, there is scarcely a mention of this on the band website, but his obituary does give a quote on the subject from his bandmate. They tour on, relentlessly.


Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Alabama: Mobile

Purchase [  Let It Rock]

If you had no other American reference to go by, you could be forgiven for confusing the pronunciation of the Alabama city of Mobile. There are at least 3 forms, but one is correct. 'Course, it's not the only US city name to throw the unsuspecting, is it?

Located on I-10 (which is inherently kind of a cross-roads -as are all of US Interstate hiway cities), Mobile, like the state itself is classic Deep South, and that includes the good as well as the better known bad. Hey, the city that lays claim to the first Mardi Gras must have (had) something going for it beyond the fact that it is the state's port city (AL doesn't have much coast anyway.)

While the city is hardly bereft of music recording studios, its better known role in music is more as a source of lyric inspiration. As in Chuck Berry's Let It Rock.
It doesn't appear that Berry experienced the train gang referred to in his lyrics, but, growing up in the South, he certainly had all the background necessary to put together a valid narrative incorporating the right themes in a song. And Alabama has gone back and forth on the use of chain gangs even after a mid-90s general halt to their use.

But rather than a song about gangs, trains or the deep south for that matter, it's a rock and roll song about how life is just plain tough, a song about the blues. And it sounds a lot like Berry's most famous song, don't it?