Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Temptation called Victoryland

Alright. It’s 6:50 pm Friday and we’re stuck in traffic on I-85. A mile away from Shorter, 22 north of Montgomery. But the concert is free. So I guess it could have been worse. The glittering Quincy’s 777 sign towers over us as we slowly drive ourselves into the huge parking lot of Victoryland. The Temptations are on tonight.

As Victoryland-owner Milton McGregor has been proudly announcing on TV for weeks, the concert will serve as a “grand opening” for the Oasis, a 300-room luxury hotel conveniently located between the Casino and the dog track. When magnanimity marries business has got to be always fair and balanced, so another concert is scheduled for tomorrow night: the one of Randy Owen, lead singer for the country rock band Alabama, the voice of unforgettable tunes like… “Dixie in Christmas.” Pleasing the black folks, pleasing the white folks. To each one group, its own music genre. That’s Alabama for y’all. And let me tell ya, that’s customer care at its best. I decided to go check this out. Plus, the legendary Temptations in concert? How could I miss it!

I want to make it clear first that I hate casinos. I really do. Casinos in America, small or big (and the one in Shorter, name notwithstanding, IS big, probably bigger than the Beau Rivage down in Biloxi), they all look alike to me. Places where there is an eternal artificial night, people drink for free, and smoking is still allowed. The same annoying background noise: orchestral instruments that are tuning up before the concert begins, only that here the concert never begins and the conflicting sounds turn out to come from the slot machines. Thinking that people actually enjoy spending DAYS in there—while the outside world gets sunlights and then moonlights or moonless-nights—simply blows my mind.

And the dogracing. Do I really need to account for my personal despise for this longtime, inhumane pastime? I have to say though that I am actually amused by the historical claim and more so by how the Arabic tradition is being (conveniently) pulled in as to establish an appeal by tradition—always a win-win in Dixieland. Indeed, let us read an excerpt from the section dedicated to “Greyhound History” on the Victoryland website: “The Arabs so admired the physical attributes and speed of the greyhound that it was the only dog permitted to share their tents and ride atop their camels. In early Arabian culture, the birth of a greyhound ranked second only in importance to the birth of a son.”

As a way to relieve gamblers’ consciences, Victoryland has established an adoption program for the “retired” greyhounds. Again, from the Victoryland website: “At the end of the greyhound's career they adapt to the life of a loving pet with ease and have become the pet of choice among an increasing number of people.”

Now, let’s be serious. Who wants a pet that seems constantly possessed and needs to move 24/7? The story of the end of these dogs’ racing career is a plainly cruel one. It was in the past, it is now and it will be up as long as this pastime is around. Once the greyhounds entertained numerous screaming crowds and have occasionally become stars, they are simply discarded. An end not that different from the ones of too many football players, as recently pointed out in The New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell (“Offensive Play. How different are dogfighting and football?” - October 19, 2009), a parallel also drawn by the very PR personnel of Victoryland (again from the website) “To watch a greyhound in action is comparable to watching any great athlete. The grace and beauty of this most noble animal is a sight to behold.”

Yet, here we are, again, for the Temptations, under the massive white tent that has been set up for this “customer appreciation event.” Local R&B star Lisa along with her band the Ellusions (yes, it is not misspelled) are closing their opening set on the notes of what seems a never-ending version of Prince’s “Purple Rain.” Despite the fact that the nocturnal cold is slowing falling over the flat land of Central Alabama, the heater-deprived tent is still packed with people of all ages. And yes, mostly black folks. BUT not solely, I have to say. In the end, did I mention that the concert is FREE and do I need to reiterate that not a lot is going even on a Friday night around Alabama The Beautiful? So white folks are present too, by the hundreds. (Given the amount of cars in the parking lots and garage, I would dare to say that about fifteen thousand people are on Victoryland soil tonite, but don’t quote me on that)

And here they come: The Temptations, the only one band among of the several offshoots (“Dennis Edwards and the Temptations Review,” “Damon Harris and the Temptations Review,” “Legendary Lead Singers of the Temptations,” “The Temptations Reunion Show”) that can righteously call itself so. Little counts that the sole member of the original band is Otis Williams. And as the concert begins, Old Otis doesn’t fail to claim his historical weight (“As of January of this year, I have been doing this for 48 years,” he says).

The Temptations sing the band’s most celebrated hits (“Just My Imagination” and “I Wish It Would Rain” among others) and the crowd shows its appreciation by dancing and singing along. Too bad the stage is over-lit and the lighting sets a quite odd bleaching effect over the figures of the five vocalists. The singers entertain as they do. And MC Ron Tyson laments that he cannot jump up and down because of the delicious buffet he just had over there… (pointing to the Casino)

It’s 9:25. After playing for an hour and fifteen minutes—20 of which devoted to introducing all the members of the band, including Montgomerian Sam Williams (member of the Tuscaloosa Horns)—The Temptations sing their “national anthem:” “My Girl.” On the notes of a lesser-famous song, the show vanishes and the crowd appears to scatter; as if to follow the inaudible whistles of the slot machines inside, though, it winds up massively flowing into the entrance of…well, obviously, the Casino.

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