Alabama draws 8,000 music-starved Minnesotans in first big concert since pandemic

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Tim Nelson of Stillwater rocked out at the last big concert in the Twin Cities: Kiss and David Lee Roth in February 2020.

Exactly 467 days later — everyone's counting during the pandemic — Nelson attended the area's first big COVID-era concert Saturday, featuring Alabama at Mystic Lake Casino amphitheater.

For country's all-time biggest band, it was only the second show in nearly two years. And for the music-starved, finally-getting-out-of-the-house crowd of maybe 8,000, it was time to party. Maskless fans boogied to "Mountain Music" and "Dixieland Delight" and sang along to song after song from the '80s and '90s. Even the many grandparents in attendance rose to their feet for the fiddle tunes.

The 10-member band sounded just right as Alabama resumed its 50th anniversary trek with a generous two-hour concert, but it was obvious that lead singer Randy Owen was not in touring shape. After performing Friday in Moorhead, Minn., where it was 102 degrees when the band's plane landed, Owen seemed noticeably tired on a 99-degree evening in Prior Lake.

A couple of times during the 20-song set, the 71-year-old explained he was out of breath. So he let his cousin, co-founder/bassist/singer Teddy Gentry, filibuster with some story about writing a particular song.

Owen not only seemed tuckered out but, more significantly, his voice was not in top form. Sometimes, he sounded flat, sometimes devoid of character, generally short on oomph.

This seemed to be a different Randy Owen than Minnesotans were accustomed to seeing at the State Fair, where Alabama has played an unprecedented 19 concerts. For one, the singer set a record on Saturday for the fewest mentions of Minnesota at an Alabama concert in the Gopher State. A mere four times! Usually, he gratuitously peppers his patter and lyrics with local references. He didn't even switch up, per usual, the line in "Dixieland Delight" about "a Tennessee Saturday night." (C'mon dude, it was a Minnesota Saturday night.)

Moreover, Owen wasn't as physical as in previous performances. His main move on Saturday was to wave his arms back and forth, as if mimicking Prince's "Purple Rain." But on nearly every third song?

And when it came time to introduce the band members, Owen kept glancing at a sheet of paper in his hand. (He said he needed the notes to confirm the home states of each musician. TMI.)

The extra-large band is necessary to deliver Alabama's layered sound, especially since guitarist/fiddler/singer Jeff Cook rarely performs anymore because of Parkinson's disease. Five people added vocal harmonies, an Alabama trademark. Keyboardist Chip Davis handled Cook's high harmony role, Kimo Forrest took over on lead guitar and Megan Mullins was featured on fiddle, earning fist bumps from the lead singer after every bluegrass breakdown.

Davis and Gentry collaborated on a new number, introduced as "Jeff's Song," though it's probably titled "I Will Remember You." Buoyed by photos of Cook on a backdrop, it was a sentimental tribute to an essential comrade who is missing in action but not forgotten.

Named country music's artist of the decade for the 1980s, Alabama did a farewell tour in 2003-04 and then took a 10-year hiatus. The group has delivered only one album of original material in 20 years, 2015's "Southern Drawl."

Saturday's set list didn't feature anything from that record, but selections were drawn from 13 different albums — plus a cover of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and "Happy Birthday" to a 41-year-old St. Paul police officer who received robust applause for his service.

Owen got little reaction when he asked, "How many people have lost loved ones to the coronavirus?" Well, he responded, "We have." Then he asked everyone to stand and sing with him on the toe-tapping "Give Me One More Shot," which is not about getting vaccinations but about asking for one more chance.

With more than 40 No. 1 songs, Alabama couldn't play all its hits, but sorely missing was "Love in the First Degree," its blockbuster crossover ballad. Highlights included "Born Country," "Tennessee River," "If You're Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)" and "Mountain Music," which had bros swinging each other square-dance style on the Mystic lawn.

There were a couple of misfires — the dated, uninspiring "Dancin', Shaggin' on the Boulevard" and the usually inspiring "Angels Among Us," Owen's theme for the St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, which echoed "Rainbow Connection" but was delivered with a colorless voice.

As big concerts return this summer, Alabama is the first in a series of 1980s heroes coming to the Twin Cities, along with Guns N' Roses, Hall & Oates and Def Leppard with Motley Crue. Avid concertgoer Nelson has tickets to see all of them. Here's hoping those rock vets are in better shape than ol' Alabama.

Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719

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