In a walk, the Alabama Shakes are one of the best new bands out there, and easily one of the best live acts I’ve ever seen. Their debut album, Boys & Girls, has been getting a lot of attention largely on the strength of their explosive live shows. Patterson Hood, an early booster of theirs, marveled at how great they sounded in a bar with no quality sound system. This is a band that needs no amplification, but when they have it, wow.
They got together in high school, in their beloved Alabama, but sound like they’ve been playing together for decades. Drummer Steve Johnson and Bassist Zac Cockrell make up a powerfully tight, rumbling rhythm section not concerned with flourish. Zac barely moves on stage and Steve rarely fills. Then there’s the brilliantly named Heath Fogg. His guitar work is also beautifully understated, the kind of clean, efficient playing normally found in legends like Chuck Berry. That reliable backing is deceptively simple, taking more effort and mastery than any histrionics would. It’s important to mention their contribution up front, because they don’t really get as much attention as their singer, Brittany Howard.
It’s understandable they get lost a bit in people’s admiration of the band, because Brittany is a force of nature. It’s ridiculous that she’s 23. She has the kind of voice that sounds like she’s lived several lifetimes, and the scars of those lives are still fresh. I use the word scars with hesitation, because it implies a lot of pain. While there is pain there, there is also immeasurable joy. She sings with a vibrancy and life the way Janis Joplin did, and the way Otis Redding did. She commands the stage with a quick wit and a million watt smile. I saw them earlier this year and can tell you everyone in that audience was in love with her, enthralled with her completely.
I saw them in a small club holding about three hundred people, and since then they’ve played Newport Folk, Lollapalooza, and Red Rocks with Neil Young. They’ve grown to the point that when I see them tomorrow night they’ll be in a theater holding eight times the headcount of that earlier show. I fully expect those numbers to grow.