OPEN HOUSE FESTIVAL: Alabama 3 – Windsor, Bangor

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As absurd as this may sound to any diehard fan of Alabama 3, I had only heard of them through their most famous song, “Got Yourself A Gun”, which featured as the theme tune to the hit television series, The Sopranos.

Given that the tune uniquely fuses hardcore blues with etherial techno music, and putting this together with the fact that this Open House Festival show was billed as “Live and Acoustic”, I had no idea what to expect.

I should mention briefly the opening act, Hard Chargers. Who knew that the combination of only one guitar and a washboard could create such intricate vibes? Think Seasick Steve through the eyes on an audience seeing double – these two guys, complete with long beards and scruffy clothes, performed some great low-down blues songs with a real Southern feel. But they in fact hail from Belfast, so if they are playing near you soon, I would definitely recommend that you attend.

Hard Chargers were the perfect act for Alabama 3 to follow. The former set up the feel of an old American blues bar (and man was it hot in there!), giving the audience a taste of what was to come. A3 bounded on stage about half an hour later to thunderous applause. The huge response to the physical presence of the band – even before a musical note had resounded – isolated me from the bulk of the crowd as I suddenly realised that the band’s popularity did not in fact stem from its association with The Sopranos. This was intensified further when they opened with “Got Yourself A Gun”, a song which the audience greeted like an old friend rather than the only song in the band’s repertoire that they knew. I was humbled and listened with a keen ear.

The techno element of the band’s unique sound was indeed absent, but this did not stop A3 delivering to their audience an energised performance. Like the preceding act, instruments were few and far between. There was an acoustic guitar (Mark Sams AKA Rock Freebase), a harmonica (Nick Reynolds AKA Harpo Strangelove), a backing vocalist and A+ gospel singer (Aurora Dawn) and the main man, Rob Spragg AKA Larry Love. Spragg is extremely charismatic. Grey hair, sunglasses, shirt wide open revealing several necklaces, beer, beer and more beer. The rock n’ roll lifestyle has clearly clung to him like a shadow over many years – at one point he even took a swig from a hip-flask offered to him from a young audience member, a moment akin to the offering of a lamb to a God. The units consumed over the years have resulted in a growl that would make Howlin’ Wolf salute from blues heaven. Think Ian Drury, borderline Tom Waits. But this is not to be criticised; Spragg’s growl is a key pillar of A3’s sound.

One danger of watching a two-hour set by any blues band is that blues music is, by its very nature, extremely repetitive. But A3 overcame this hurdle by including abrupt changes of tempo, inducing crowd sing-a-longs (e.g. “Woody Guthrie” and “Hello… I’m Johnny Cash”) and playing some popular covers (e.g. “Love Will Tear Us Apart”). In other songs Dawn took over the lead-singing, perhaps to showcase her extraordinary talent as a gospel singer or perhaps to give Spragg a break to clear his throat and drink more beer. But, even without these variations through A3’s set, the sheer energy emitted from the band, along with Spragg’s vibrancy and crowd interaction, prevented any accusations of repetitiveness. The crowd was itching for the next song when the previous had ended – who cares if some songs were distinguishable only by their lyrics?

And A3 are not afraid of voicing their political views, though I got the impression from their overly anarchistic outlook upon current affairs such as fracking and Facebook that their views may be held in an ironic – almost parodic – sense to fit with their rock n’ roll image. This was my realisation when Spragg dedicated a song to “all prisoners everywhere, regardless of their crime”. Right on.

As previously mentioned, I was not too familiar with A3’s material before seeing them live and have subsequently tried to relive the experience by listening to their back catalogue and tracking down the songs that made their setlist at The Windsor, Bangor, last Saturday. But, having done this, I have come to realise that the acoustic-blues infused, in-your-face show that A3 put on is a far-cry from the high-spec production music that they put out. What I mean to say is, their “Live and Acoustic” show is the kind of experience that you will not understand until you see the band first-hand. Patrick Todd, GiggingNI.com