In the nearly six years that we have lived in Montgomery, not once had a touring act come to our city that compelled our attendance. We love music, and have a vast collection of albums in all formats. We love going to see bands, even if we have barely heard of them. So don’t get the impression that we are some sort of hard-to-please music snobs. Yet, for some reason, bands we like just don’t come to this town.
Six years is a long time to wait. We have been to countless shows in Birmingham. We have even gone to Atlanta for some concerts. But our city has mostly been a barren wasteland when it comes to live music and touring acts.¹
Last night the drought ended. After six years of living here and waiting for a good musical act to come to town, we were finally pried out of our house to go and see a famous performer. No, not Elton John, although he performed in our town last night too. All respect to Sir Elton, but that’s not our kind of thing. We’re glad he came and hope that his concert sparks a run of great shows at Garrett Coliseum, but we weren’t part of that audience.²
Instead, we were motivated to go see Col. Bruce Hampton, a legend amid so-called “jam band” circles. I own two of his albums and enjoy his music. We were surprised that he was coming to Montgomery and were thrilled to be able to show support and to be able to catch world class live music in our city.
Here’s a blow-by-blow of what happened: We got a great parking space near the AlleyBAR downtown. The $5 cover was so low that we wondered what had happened for Col. Bruce to fall on such hard times. This guy ought to be charging $15 or $20 a ticket. Had he become destitute? Oh well, a deal’s a deal.
The wristband guy could not have captured more arm hair in the wristband’s adhesive closure if he had tried. Some people try to seal the wristband around the hairless part of your wrist. This guy thought he was giving me an arm Brazilian.
We were an hour before showtime, so we sat at the bar. Our mixed drinks were $4.25 each and came in red Solo cups like we were at a frat party. They appeared to have no alcohol in them. I gave the bartender a twenty for two drinks and got $5 back. When I asked where the rest of the change was, he seemed annoyed that I had bothered to count it. We then proceeded to watch the bartenders execute one of the most inept busy Friday night crushes we had ever seen. They didn’t know what was in their bottles. They didn’t know where the beers were. People ordering drinks had to help the bartenders make them and point to where their beers were in the refrigerated cases. It was very entertaining.
If you want to hang out with hordes of white dudes in crew cuts, AlleyBAR on Friday night is the place for you. Maybe they run a shuttle from the Air Force base, but I have never been in a large room with some many people that know how to fix an airplane. There were probably eight large groups, with ten people in each, of sporty white guys slapping each other on the back, probably glad to be off base and away from the prying eyes of commanding officers.
Finally the doors to the back garage opened, and we filtered into the performance space. For some reason, they had set up a bunch of circular plastic tables, like we were at an outdoor wedding. Those were clustered at the back of the brink and concrete enclosure, and there was a small area cleared out in front of the stage.
Col. Bruce and three other band members started playing and my first question was, “Where are the speakers?” I’m pretty sure there weren’t any. The sound was provided by the band members’ amps. There was a mixing board in the back, but Col. Bruce’s vocals sounded muddy and nearly incomprehensible.
That’s a shame because his band was amazing. As a new documentary about Col. Bruce makes clear, this is something that he is famous for. Whether it’s the Aquarium Rescue Unit or the Fiji Mariners or just some guys he has gathered, Col. Bruce pulls together a skilled group of musicians.
Last night was no exception. I’d wager that the dudes playing with Col. Bruce were among the most skilled rock and blues musicians that have played in Montgomery in years. Sadly, Col. Bruce did not appear to be into it at all.
An uncharitable suggestion might be that he was intoxicated in some way. He kept his eyes closed most of the show, appeared to be nodding off at various points, and his guitar solos were oddly both tentative and self-indulgent before being quickly abandoned. While his band laid down some incredible slide guitar riffs and inspired piano solos, Col. Bruce seemed to be bored and sloppy, missing notes, throwing out short bursts of “improvisation” before scrapping them with a shrug.
A more charitable suggestion would be that Col. Bruce simply didn’t give a crap and was ready to go to the next show, one where more than 10 people in the audience had ever heard of him. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the people that came to see Col. Bruce were outnumbered by a magnitude of six or seven by the people who were just out at the bar on a Friday night. Most of the people stayed in the other room, occasionally filtering in to look at the stage show in the strange bunker garage performance space. I imagined the interior thoughts of the people that wandered in: “Five people standing in front of a stage? Twenty more talking loudly to each other at circular tables in the back of the room? Some 70-year-old dude diddling around on guitar in front of a killer trio? I’ve seen enough. Back to the bros!”
Despite all of this complaining, we were glad we went. Col. Bruce’s band was incredible. Shoddy drinks aside, it was worth it to pay a $5 cover to see a legend, even an uninspired one. And if people don’t show up to support accomplished and talented musicians when they come to Montgomery, others will continue to stay away.
The slide guitarist should have his own band.
¹ There have been a few near-misses. The Montgomery Center for Performing Arts has brought Willie Nelson and a band called Cake, both of which we might have been willing to see at more reasonable ticket prices. The Capri brought Henry Rollins to town on a speaking tour, so that doesn’t count as music. And we briefly considered going to see DJ Logic at the AlleyBAR before deciding that we weren’t willing to stoop that low. We never went to the failed and now-cancelled Jubilee festival. And this G-Side debacle doesn’t count. Thus, six years went by without seeing a single live musical touring act perform. And we felt like we were living in a true impoverished backwater. Reflections on Montgomery nightlife unrelated to the paucity of touring acts can be found here. One other brief caveat, while I’m making them: We have gone to see a friend’s band, which was technically a touring act, but also doesn’t count because he’s a friend. But he couldn’t even play with his whole band because he says that Montgomery has no non-smoking venues for bands like his. So, Head on the Door is great for metal and hardcore bands in a smokey atmosphere with no cover charge, but not ideal for touring acts that might have concerns about cigarette smoke.
² If Garrett Coliseum doesn’t fix the parking situation, people are not going to keep going to shows there. The headlines should have been about how great Elton John was and what a big milestone the show was in the comeback story of the Coliseum. Instead, headlines suggested that many concert-goers waited an hour for parking and missed a big chunk of the set they paid to see. Who knew that people would be arriving in cars to see a concert in a city with no public transportation? Shameful planning failure and PR fiasco for the venue.