Two hundred years of Tuscaloosa history celebrated through music

Alabama musicians draw crowd for bicentennial celebration


CW/ Keely Brewer

Showers of fireworks and confetti took precedence over rain on Saturday, when Tuscaloosa came together to celebrate 200 years of Alabama’s history – and Alabama music.

The Tuscaloosa Bicentennial Bash, an event endorsed by the Alabama Bicentennial Commission, featured 10 musical artists with origins in Alabama, spanning genres from gospel and soul to alternative rock and Americana.

“I definitely think it adds something special that you wouldn’t have if they weren’t from here,” said Zach Fisher, a UA senior majoring in marketing. “Especially with it being the bicentennial, knowing that they’re all from Alabama, it’s pretty cool.”

The lineup took over two stages at the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater, with a temporary stage set up on the grounds. The first of the headlining acts was The Blind Boys of Alabama, the Grammy Award-winning gospel group and Alabama Music Hall of Fame inductee.

Decked out in coordinating violet tuxedos, the group of blind vocalists danced and jumped through their set, supported by a backing band of three instrumentalists. Singer Jimmy Carter, who has been with the band since its start 80 years ago, led the band through a set of tunes from the band’s most recent album while hitting soulful highlights from earlier in the band’s career.

Moon Taxi was next to take the main stage, sporting Birmingham, Alabama-area members Tommy Putnam, Tyler Ritter and Trevor Terndrup in its indie rock lineup. The band, which is expected to release new music in 2019, delivered the Alabama debut of “Now’s The Time,” a yet-to-be-released track. Though the stands were starting to fill in as confetti cannons burst near the end of the band’s set, attendee David Ginn said the crowd didn’t reach its fever pitch until the next act strutted on stage.

“The energy was really subdued until the Commodores came on,” Ginn said.

The Commodores, featuring two original members of the Tuskegee, Alabama-originated group, stormed the stage in matching black ensembles accessorized with crystal designs. Original members William King and Walter Orange led the performance with newcomer J.D. Nicholas, who took over the vocal parts made famous by former member Lionel Richie. Performing hits like “Brick House,” “Nightshift” and “Lady (You Bring Me Up),” the group won over attendees of all ages.

“I heard a girl behind me shout, ‘My dad loves you guys!,’” said Brooke Bartolf, a senior majoring in public relations. “And I just thought, ‘Same, girl, same.’”

The soulful funk band that made Motown some serious money in the 1970s was still able to put on a great show, Fisher and Bartolf said. The crowd’s engagement was perhaps best exemplified by the fervor raised when Nicholas tossed drumsticks and T-shirts into the crowd at the end of the performance.

“The Commodores stood out for me for sure,” Fisher said just before the final act. “They were awesome.”

The next band was the reason that Memphis local Ginn had ventured down to Tuscaloosa in the first place.

“I follow St. Paul & The Broken Bones [on Facebook], and I saw that they were playing here,” Ginn said. “I just couldn’t miss it.”

The Birmingham and Muscle Shoals-bred soul group, now with three albums under its belt, made its first appearance in Tuscaloosa since a stop at Druid City Music Hall in September 2018. Led by shiny, ruffled black robe-clad vocalist Paul Janeway, the band successfully transitioned the crowd from day to night, with Janeway climbing into the crowd to perform “Broken Bones and Pocket Change” on the roof of the Amphitheater’s sound booth.

“Out of all the bands that I see, and I see a lot of bands, [St. Paul & The Broken Bones] are the only ones who really explode off of the stage,” Ginn said.

The final act of the night was Muscle Shoals local Jason Isbell and his backing band, The 400 Unit. Amanda Shires, a Texan violinist-slash-vocalist and Isbell’s wife of six years, joined the band onstage for a lengthy set that segued into a fireworks display behind the main stage. Isbell sported Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Ed King’s guitar during parts of the show. King’s widow gifted Isbell the guitar, he said, under the condition that it would continue to be played rather than hidden away in a collection.

Isbell also noted that the day’s rain forecast hadn’t ruined the show, something that Ginn and Fisher were both prepared for.

“I wasn’t worried about the rain at all,” Ginn said. “I got a parka. I was ready to get wet.”