Photos & Story by Scott A. Smith
Few rock bands can shake up a rock-and-soul storm for a paying audience like Alabama Shakes.
A group that excels in the studio and holds even greater power on the concert stage, the Grammy Award-nominated, Athens, Ala.-born quintet performed a brilliant headlining set Sept. 6 at the Arkansas Music Pavilion (AMP) in Fayetteville. Stepping onto the large stage at about 9 p.m., Alabama Shakes drew thunderous cheers from more than 3,000 fans, as well as a few “Brittany, take me to church!” shout-outs from the first few rows.
Singer-guitarist Brittany Howard’s voice was in fantastic shape, as were the sincere, edgy instrumental efforts from guitarist Heath Fogg, bassist Zac Cockrell, drummer Steve Johnson and touring keyboardist Ben Tanner. Surprisingly, “Hold On,” one of the band’s biggest radio hits and the lead-off cut from the debut “Boys & Girls” album, strutted out early in the set, as did the equally worthy “Hang Loose.”
Donning a multi-colored dress, 1960s-style glasses and a quasi-beehive hair style, Howard often gripped her teal-colored Gibson SG as if her every breath depended upon the retro-looking guitar. Her guitar solos and breaks were quick and beautifully ragged in tone and style. Instead of opting for the technical, guitar-shredding mode of the likes of Joe Bonamassa, Howard let her intuitive fingers pick out barking, Pete Townshend-esque bursts of impressive six-string sound, providing the necessary counterpoint to her invigorated singing.
When it came time for the melancholic title track from “Boys & Girls ,” Howard introduced the song as the real-life result of a friendship strained a sometimes-wicked world. “There was this boy I grew up with, and we spent just about every day with each other,” she said. “Then, later, someone told us that we were too old to be friends. Well, I tell you now, I think that is bullsh*t.”
The audience then roared it agreement with Howard’s statement before Howard sang, “Oh, why ought I let them drive a wedge between us? I watched it and didn’t say nothing, and now I’m crying when I see him.”
Cockrell’s bass and Johnson’s drumming locked together from minute one to form an earthy foundation, helping Alabama Shakes surpass the still-good studio originals with impassioned readings of the “Boys & Girls” album tracks at the AMP. Cockrell, Johnson and Tanner never dove into overly flashy playing, but their interplay with Howard and the textured guitar of Fogg was never predictable or stale. The band’s music was as intoxicating and vital as Howard’s vocal delivery.
Like the “Boys & Girls” album, the Fayetteville concert was dotted with traces of the timeless wonder of Motown, Stax and early Led Zeppelin LPs, yet Alabama Shakes managed to retain a fresh sound that one-ups the work of the gifted-yet-slightly overrated Black Keys and equals the bold, in-concert magic of Grace Potter & The Nocturnals.
In some circles, Howard’s voice often has been compared to Janis Joplin, but that’s really an unfair linking. Howard undeniably has every bit of the lungpower and vocal energy the late Joplin possessed, but Howard’s voice is much more soulful and, truth be told, less shrieky than Joplin’s pipes. Every syllable from Howard’s lips drips with authentic, riveting emotion. When Howard sings about being wounded, you almost can feel the pain and wish you could mourn for her. When Howard sings triumphantly about temporarily overcoming life’s conveyer belt of obstacles, you cheer alongside her, urging her to reach more victorious heights.
When the glorious Alabama Shakes is seen and heard in the flesh, one not only forgets that Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga are entangled in some silly, pointless feud, but one almost forgets such media-hogging, overhyped artists exist altogether. Alabama Shakes is real talent without cheap shots at controversy. Alabama Shakes exudes true greatness without the arrogance of self-importance. Alabama Shakes, from the looks and sounds of the Fayetteville gig, could be around making oh-so-worthy music for a long, long time.