Unless youve been walking around with plugs in your ears and blinders over your eyes for the past couple months, you know full well that Alabama Shakes are on one hell of a hot streak. From one hyperbole-ridden review to the next, it seems nobody can say anything bad about Brittany Howard & co.s fierce, soul-infused rock n roll. Not-so-sad to say, their performance last night at New Yorks venerable Bowery Ballroom did nothing to dispel any said hyperbole. To put it plainly: believe the hype.
As Alabama Shakes prepared to take the stage of the intimate venue, it was almost impossible to miss the plethora of sharply dressed label executives lining the outer rims of the sold-out crowd (I see you too, David Byrne). Its likely that these upper management looky loos in turn contributed to the obvious stiffness of the first couple of songs. Guitarist Heath Fogg (is that not the most Southern name youve ever heard?) even slightly botched the slide guitar intro of Hang Loose in a display of what could only be described as nerves. Yet by the time they launched into their explosive first single, Hold On, all stiffness appeared to vanish and Howard proceeded to command the stage with the power and presence of a seasoned veteran.
Like a Southern preacher, she wagged her finger and strutted across the small stage while belting out her signature soul-drenched howl that falls somewhere between Howlin Wolf and Janis Joplin. As unmistakably charismatic as Howard is though, this still doesn’t outshine her raw musical abilities. Alabama Shakes were able to prove with ease that watching an artist talk the talk and subsequently walk the walk can be nothing short of spectacular. Everything from the tumbling jammy twang of On My Way to the heartfelt doo-wop of You Ain’t Alone was executed with an amplified vivacity impossible to fully appreciate on record.
Not surprisingly, the setlist consisted mostly of material off their newly released debut LP, Boys & Girls. However, there were a few pleasant surprises thrown in that added a nice variety to the performance. Namely, new song Makin Me Itch stood out thanks to its Chuck Berry-esque guitar breaks and fast-paced rhythm. While I would have been perfectly fine amusing myself with the putty-faced expressions on bassist Zac Cockrells face the whole night, it was Howard who proved, song after song, to be the star of the show. How she even had a voice after wailing out the climactic final portion of epic homesick rocker, Rise to the Sun, is beyond anything I can fathom.
On this particular night, Alabama Shakes sudden rise to fame proved to be the great equalizer among us lucky audience members. It was a truly profound and unique experience to know that virtually everyone in attendance was seeing the group for the very first time. In a sense, not a single person knew precisely what they were in for, yet I can guarantee that not a soul left the venue unsatisfied. Looking out at the cheering crowd one last time as they walked off stage, Howard said into the microphone, You all look so cool out there. Makes me wish I was cool too! Dont worry, Brittany. Youre doing just fine.
Photography by Nate Slevin.
Goin to the Party
I Found You
Boys & Girls
Making Me Itch (new song)
You Aint Alone
On Your Way
Rise to the Sun