How do you describe a gig that is half expletive-ridden, drug-fuelled, religious awakening, and half frontal lobotomy? Alabama 3 are (in)famous for their onstage antics, but the acoustic set and the middle-aged crowd led ATL to assume that tonight would be a subdued and respectable evening. Rookie mistake.
The evening kicks off with frontman Larry Love ambling on stage, looking like a dishevelled Reservoir Dog in a black suit with sheriff badge and sunglasses. No pleasantries, just straight into a weird half-rap over a dubstep backing track. Apparently this is NOT country and western, but it isn't very good either. Larry Love has the bemused swagger of a drunk uncle who hasn't had enough gin, and his spoken word stylings inspire that cringing feeling like when you witness said drunk uncle dancing.
The remaining band members take their places, and the metallic twang of guitar gives way to Love's gravelly voice and the soulful goodness of female vocalist Aurora Dawn, opening track 'Too Sick To Pray' filling the Empire with an acid-country vibe. A quick post-song rant about the stuffiness of people from Cambridge, and we're straight into 'Rush', a fast-tempo bluesier number that gets the crowd clapping. Showmanship clearly ain't lost on these guys, but they still haven't managed to shake that tackiness that's haunted the set, and the anarchy feels rehearsed.
The songs pale in comparison to the rantings in between, none of which can be printed on account of having more swearing than an episode of The Wire. The evening takes another bizarre turn as a woman (who by day must surely be someone's very respectable mother) wanders up on stage and uses the opportunity to do a bit of dancing.
Next up is 'Speed of the Sound of Loneliness', a folksy drawl of a number that morphs into a full-on hoe-down, and inspires the crowd to bellow with appreciation. The party, it seems, has truly kicked off. But it's the dirty gospel according to Alabama 3 that is 'Operation Desert Storm', complete with Jew Harp and Aurora Dawn's voice at full throttle, that causes this gig to morph from embarrassing pastiche into something truly great. Couple that with a full-on Johnny Cash impression competition in the middle of 'Hello...I'm Johnny Cash', and an anti-Afghanistan war take on Country Joe and the Fish's 'I'm Fixin To Die Rag', and we really have ourselves an unforgettable experience of a gig.
By now the crowd are hugging each other, drinking beer, and partaking in what's more of a musical brawl during 'We Don't Dance to Techno Anymore', before the gospel strains of 'Peace in the Valley' force all present into subjugation at the feet of the 1st Presbyterian Church of Elvis the Divine.
And so the sermon comes to an end, in an evening which saw a frankly awful gig transform into something amazing. If you ever want to know what it feels like to get hit repeatedly in the face until you're happy, try an Alabama 3 show. You (eventually) won't be disappointed.