It really did seem like the universe wasn’t sure whether it wanted Alabama to come to Charlotte.
Let’s recap: In December 2018, the country-music supergroup led by cousins Randy Owen, Teddy Gentry and Jeff Cook announced a 2019 tour to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Charlotte wasn’t among the original cities on the tour.
Then in May 2019, Alabama announced it would include Charlotte on the tour’s second leg, setting the date for Oct. 11 with The Charlie Daniels Band opening. But that August, the band postponed because Owen, the lead singer, had been suffering from cluster migraines and vertigo. Eventually, they rescheduled for July 11, 2020.
Then COVID struck and, well, that was that for 2020 for pretty much everyone.
By the time it was safe (safe enough, that is … or at least safe-ish) for people to go back to amphitheaters and arenas en masse in July, though, guitarist/fiddler Cook was for all intents and purposes retired due to health issues related to Parkinson’s disease.
And by August, the Delta variant of COVID was making some wonder again about whether doing stuff like this was such a wise idea yet.
So it was something of a minor miracle when Owen, Gentry and a cadre of eight musicians appeared on stage as the lights came up at Spectrum Center to open the Charlotte edition of Alabama’s “50th Anniversary Tour” on Friday night — roughly two years after the actual anniversary.
Was it worth the wait? For the most part, yes.
Not only did the cousins deliver on their promise of the night being a celebration of their legacy, they did it in a way that made it feel like they weren’t just checking off a line item on a list of tour dates.
Over the course of a leisurely paced 2-hour-and-6-minute set, Alabama performed lots of its biggest, most crowd-pleasing No. 1 hits while still saving room for a couple of poignant deep cuts; shared stories behind the origins of several songs (more than one of which elicited perhaps louder cheers in this part of the country than in other places, due to their connection to Myrtle Beach, S.C., where Owen, Gentry and Cook cut their teeth in the ’70s); and gave a few lucky fans memories they’ll never forget.
It’s difficult to pick a song highlight, because that’ll frankly depend on what songs mean the most to an individual fan, but I’ll take a stab at a few:
- The high-energy “Can’t Keep a Good Man Down,” with a special shout-out to the moment in the first verse when Owen sang the line “You didn’t even say goodbye when you slammed that door” while settling into a bit of a crouch and miming slamming a door.
- The nearly 11-minute opus that started with the Deep-Southern-fried “Dixieland Delight,” segued into countrified Christian hymn “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” then dove back into “Dixieland Delight,” building to a climax that featured frenetic fiddling by band member Megan Mullins (who sported a baby bump — she is expecting in October) and a rollicking electric piano solo by fast-fingered blind keyboardist Gordon Mote.
A sweet rendition of the ballad “Angels Among Us,” which Owen prefaced with a heartfelt story about how he came to become a well-known supporter of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and inspired concertgoers to turn on their cellphone lights to light up the arena. As the song came to a close, Owen pulled out his own phone to take a video of the crowd while he sang. When he finished, he stuck the device in his right rear jeans pocket, nodded his head in approval, and blew a kiss into the air.
It’s much easier, meanwhile, to pick a fan-interaction highlight.
It wasn’t when Owen took a cowboy hat from a fan in the front row, wore it while singing “The Closer You Get” (while the excited fan kept his face buried in his phone the whole song, likely posting a photo or video to social media or possibly texting a friend), then handed it back. And it wasn’t when he serenaded a fan who identified herself as Natalie with a country version of “Happy Birthday.”
Rather, it was when Owen pulled out a sheet of paper to read an email from a female fan who explained that her boyfriend proposed to her when he was released from the hospital after surviving a bout of COVID that had put him in the ICU.
“‘At one point the doctors told me I might be planning a funeral,’” Owen said, reading. “‘Now I’m planning a wedding … and (he) refused to let me cancel my flight from the state of Washington to Charlotte, North Carolina, to see Alabama play on Friday night. We will be there in the second row, oxygen bottle and all. We’re both just happy —” and for a second, Owen paused, his voice sounding like it was starting to break “— to be here. … Thanks for providing the soundtrack of our lives.’”
He then pointed out the couple and invited the young woman and her new fiancé — clad in a black “Alabama 50th Anniversary Tour” concert T-shirt — onto the stage, where he re-created his proposal while holding Owen’s microphone.
When it was over, the young woman was in tears. I suspect more than a few audience members were, too.
So yes, for the most part, all of this added up to a show that was worth the wait. At the same time, though, it’s always hard to watch the people you love get older, and Alabama is no exception.
Musically, the band sounded tight and bright on Friday night. But while they still sound fine, Owen, 71, and Gentry, 69, have lost a little of the luster in their voices, and the harmonies aren’t as rich as they were back in the day (although, side note, they sounded much better than Martina McBride, who seemed to be locked in a battle with pitch and key problems throughout her opening set).
And despite the skillful fiddling offered by Mullins, Cook’s absence was felt, the void underscored when Gentry sang “Jeff’s Song (I Will Remember You),“ an ode to their cousin that was performed while images of Cook played on the big screen behind them.
Even here, Gentry may have been showing his own age: He accidentally started by singing the second verse first, before checking himself and getting the band to restart the song.
It was Owen, however, who definitely seemed the more fragile of the two.
He did his best to prove himself a game performer — doing a little bit of a boogie in place at several points throughout the night, frequently waving his arms in the air to get the crowd going, even briefly jumping up and down to the beat of “Dixieland Delight” — but there were obvious signs he is slowing.
When Gordon Mote sang lead on the ballad “How Do You Fall in Love” (a song made famous with Owen on lead), Owen rested in a chair toward the back of the stage; the frontman returned to that chair whenever Gentry was at bat on lead vocals, including for “Jeff’s Song,” the lullaby-esque “Never Be One,” and Southern rocker “Turn It Off.”
Owen also notably appeared to need an assist from a stagehand on multiple occasions when he needed to get the guitar strap over his head before or after the handful of songs for which he strummed a guitar.
Those, of course, are fairly minor issues. But it can be hard to ignore them.
And even harder to ignore, if we’re being real, is a much broader question: Was going on with this show — the largest indoor gathering locally since before the pandemic and the first non-sports entertainment event at Spectrum Center in 523 days — such a wise idea?
Michael Bublé didn’t think so. He recently postponed a concert that was supposed to take place here next Wednesday until October, citing the nation’s rising coronavirus infections.
Maroon 5, which will play an outdoor show on Sept. 8 at PNC Music Pavilion in Charlotte, recently announced that all fans will need to present a negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination to gain entry into the show. Alabama did not require either.
Jason Isbell will take the same tack with his fall shows and also require fans to mask up. Alabama did not. Of the roughly 6,000 people inside Spectrum Center on Friday night, I guesstimated that about 1 in 100 — maybe 1 in 50 at absolute best — were wearing face coverings.
The only other reminder that we’re still in the middle of a pandemic came an hour into Alabama’s set, after the moment in the show when Owen had handed his microphone to the guy making the proposal. Owen was asking the woman celebrating her birthday what her name was, but he stopped short of giving away his mic this time.
“So I’m trying to be careful with this mic and be COVID-friendly, COVID-aware,” he told the crowd. “I wasn’t awhile ago, and they reminded me.”
Look, I promise you, I’m not trying to start an argument here.
The artists, the venue, and the government apparently were all in agreement that it was OK to go on with the show. If you’re an Alabama fan who waited two years for this show and were in attendance Friday night, I’m glad — thrilled — you finally got to see it. I hope you enjoyed it.
But you were very lucky to see this. Because these are not normal times.
And I really hope that a day comes again soon when they are.
1. “Pass It on Down”
2. “Can’t Keep a Good Man Down”
3. “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)“
4. “The Closer You Get”
5. “Sad Lookin’ Moon”
6. “How Do You Fall in Love”
7. “High Cotton”
8. “Give Me One More Shot”
9. “Dixieland Delight” / “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” / “Dixieland Delight”
10. “Never Be One”
11. “Angels Among Us”
12. “Born Country”
13. “Tennessee River”
14. “Jeff’s Song (I Will Remember You)“
15. “Love in the First Degree”
16. “Feels So Right”
17. “Lady Down on Love“
18. “Turn It Off”
19. “Dancin’, Shaggin’ on the Boulevard”
20. “As Long as There’s Love”
21. “Mountain Music”
22. “My Home’s in Alabama”
Martina McBride’s setlist
1. “This One’s for the Girls”
2. “Love’s the Only House”
3. “Wild Angels”
4. “My Baby Loves Me”
5. “Girls Like Me”
7. “A Broken Wing”
8. “Independence Day”