Friday, December 10
Better than: Alabama (the band and the state).
The banks of the Mississippi swell and contract in a brutally accelerated pace, not unlike the current cycle of Internet-fueled indie stardom. Channeling the bona fide heart of that fertile waterway’s musical heritage, Alabama Shakes have ridden the rapid storm swell; several notable performances at CMJ this past fall placed the group at the center of the discussion on rising talent, landing them an in-studio performance at NPR, an unexpected nod from Paste as the best new band of 2011, and now a recording contract with ATO Records. Hardly two months after settling in the minds of listeners and finding an audience outside of sleepy Athens, Alabama, they returned to New York last week, performing two sold-out shows at Mercury Lounge and even larger venue Brooklyn Bowl.
As great as those shows most probably were, it must have been infinitely more of a treat to see Alabama Shakes tear down the East Village’s Lakeside Lounge Saturday evening. Announced by the band hours before, the impromptu free gig at the long-standing Alphabet City dive bar was an iconic slice of discovery and comforting ambience. Which, coincidentally, could also neatly sum up the band’s musical approach.
Largely based around simplicity and earnestness, the vintage hue of Alabama Shakes’ music is immediately apparent. The economic yet blatantly memorable licks of CCR and the declamatory sizzle of Wilson Pickett are present. Other alt-country and soul revival bands have had success with similar elements, but those bands lack the powerhouse, show-stopping roar of Shakes frontwoman Brittney Howard. At the center of the band, the lead singer and guitarist’s howl is as delicate as it is penetrating. She’s often compared to other soul mamas like Janis Joplin and Tina Turner, but Howard bleeds more Otis Redding than anything else. Her rollercoaster-like delivery makes her vocal melodies themselves lyrical—they tell stories and convey eternal truths, beyond even the plaintive narratives embedded in her words.
Lakeside was an ideal setting for discovering Howard and the band’s charm. Filled far beyond capacity, audience members stood on benches and chairs to get a view of the quintet in the bar’s dimly lit back area; some who couldn’t fit in even watched along through the venue’s fogged-up glass windows from the street. Evoking the complexion of the delta in a dingy venue tucked away steps from the junkies and gutter punks of Tompkins Square Park, Howard led the band through its entire 12-song catalogue. Launching almost timidly into the microphone-bleeding groove of “Hold On,” the single from their eponymous debut EP, the performance started with a mellow, early-matinee bend. It smartly allowed for growth, though, as the volume and pace of the music only increased as the band continued. By the time the band arrived at the clamor and uptempo swagger of “Hurricane Strut,” filled with smoothly stabbing solos from lead guitarist Heath Fogg, the crowd had moved from static smiles to shut-eyed hip shaking.
Despite the comforting nature of the music, Alabama Shakes weren’t concerned with just reliving a specific past glory. Interspersed within the double stop chords and clanking piano lines were bassy synth rumbles, mucked up noise, and spaced out tremolo outbreaks that seemed more akin to No-wave revivalists than Muscle Shoals proponents. The crisp time keeping of Steve Johnson coupled with the lead-like bass riffs of Zac Cockrell framed the guitar interplay between Howard and Fogg. That exchange was almost art punk in nature—a Verlaine and Lloyd-like dialogue, superficially ramshackle yet full of prowess, stewed up with collard greens and sweet yams.
Howard’s stage persona was as much of a throwback as some of the band’s music. Speaking in a hushed, wide-eyed yet authoritative tone, she came off as that universally wis, even as she acknowledged her supposed ignorance toward life in the big city and the folk who populate it. Nevertheless, she declared: “Y’all seem alright.”
It was an endearing routine, even if it felt a bit like just that. After the recent media blitz, you might expect some of the elitism and worldliness of a band selling out shows in London long before the start of a European tour to emerge. Whether it has or not, the obvious honesty and graciousness of the Shakes’ soulful spirit was the most lasting impression. In a strange and intimidating megacity full of strangers, Howard sang with conviction, in heart-tugging ballad of the same name, that “You Ain’t Alone.”
Critical bias: According to whoever does ads for the jewelry store Zales, the bluesy, dirty-south rock of bands like Alabama Shakes and The Black Keys make the perfect soundtrack for purchasing conflict diamonds.
Overheard: Audience member to band: “Play one more!” Howard in response: “We don’t know one more! We came sorely unprepared.”
Random notebook dump: Bassist Zac Cockrell had a cherubic charm and a brimming smile that never let up. I’d love to get on that guy’s level, but it might take a lot of nitrous.