Review: Alabama returns with Southern spirit, classic country hits at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater

In the world of modern country music, big, bigger and biggest is, well, really big right now. Big guitars, big pyro, big trucks, big swagger.

Big, memorable, crossover hooks? Well, those are in shorter supply.

Wasn’t always this way, though. For 30 of the past 40 years, the biggest country band of all time, Alabama, managed to straddle the fences of country, rock and even pop with singles like Mountain Music, Love in the First Degree and Song of the South.

On Saturday – 10 years after their farewell tour brought them to the St. Pete Times Forum – your dad’s favorite country band returned to Tampa Bay with a 90-minute parade of hits at the relatively intimate Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. The nearly sold-out show was indoors, but it felt at times like a backwoods barbecue, with fans in all aisles clapping and hooting and cutting a rug.

Singer Randy Owen, guitarist Jeff Cook and bassist Teddy Gentry have for a couple of years now made overtures toward a full-on comeback, and their “Back to the Bowery” theater tour – a reference to the Myrtle Beach, S.C. club where they got their start 40 years ago – may be the best sign yet Alabama is prepping a return to major touring.

If so, fans should get their money’s worth. Owen, a 63-year-old cancer survivor, can still surprise behind the mic, as he jumped and kicked and hollering at the crowd during rollicking early numbers If You’re Gonna Play In Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle In the Band) and Dixieland Delight. Cook rocked a neon green fiddle on Song of the South and Tennessee River, and unleashed tasty, twangy solos on Born Country and One In the World, for which he also handled lead vocals. And Gentry – who could have passed for a roadie in his jeans and black tee – brought a humming, skunky bassline to the hazy My Home’s In Alabama, Alabama’s answer to Free Bird.

But as a collective, Alabama tends to be workmanlike and unpretentious. The real star of the show is their expansive, chart-topping catalog that’s made them one of the most popular American acts ever.

Alabama’s never gotten their critical due for their stylistic diversity – they’re really country’s version of the Doobie Brothers – and on the yacht-rocky Feels So Right and Lady Down On Love, they sounded every bit as smooth as Loggins and McDonald. The funky Dancin’, Shaggin’ on the Boulevard was another van-rockin’ slice of Seventies groovin’.

When a band’s range is so sprawling, it does occasionally dip into schmaltz, as it did on Angels Among Us and the wedding-dance staple Forever’s As Far As I’ll Go. (Either of these could have been trimmed to fit in hit I’m In a Hurry (And Don’t Know Why), which inexplicably didn’t make the setlist.)

But Alabama more than recovered with the foot-stomping The Closer You Get and Take Me Down, whose boogie-blues guitar riffs called to mind nothing less than the Alabama ShakesHold On. When the bass drum got pumping on fierce closer Mountain Music, gosh darn if it didn’t feel like a hootenanny up in stately Ruth Eckerd.

These past few months of theater shows feel like the buildup to something more substantive. The band is suggesting that’s just what they have planned – maybe some larger tours, maybe a new album.

For country music fans, the return of Alabama wouldn’t just be big. It’d be huge.

-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*

 

[Last modified: Sunday, July 7, 2013 12:43am]

    

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