The Studio at Webster Hall
Tuesday, April 11
Better than: Their record.
“Have you seen them live?”
That’s the first question people like to ask in regards to the Alabama Shakes.
No, I had not—not until last night. The response I’d get from people who seem to really pay attention to hype was a proverbial (or sometimes literal) headshake. “Buzz” makes people doubt music that they may actually like, instead annoyed by the chatter (online, more often than not) about some band that appeared out of thin air. Totally owning my enjoyment of the Alabama Shakes’ recorded material—an EP and an album, Boys & Girls (out yesterday)—the soulful garage-rockers’ album release party at the Studio at Webster Hall seemed like the right occasion to finally “experience” them live. And I was not disappointed—the Shakes are, as promised, consistently something to behold in that setting.
Frontwoman Brittany Howard is not a delicate flower, in the best way possible. She howls, she growls, she croons, she sweats, she drops down on that dirty stage floor and shreds—and in a totally different way than, say, Wild Flag’s Carrie Brownstein. She says things like, “This be my jammy jam,” and when she belts lines like, “I don’t give a damn about your intentions,” you believe her. Part of the thrill in watching Howard onstage is that she reacts fully—to the surroundings, but mostly, to her own lyrics, as if she’s making these confessions for the first time.
Though there were many genuine fans wowed by the Shakes last night, there were also those that seemed to be demanding to be wowed. The tiny and packed show, which lasted just over an hour, was sponsored by MTV and streamed live on the MTV Hive site. Besides the abundance of cameramen and MIB-style security guards, that shouldn’t make a difference, right? Except it did. When Howard was at her most vulnerable—serenading the crowd with “Boys & Girls” after explaining how it was inspired by her being told that she and her (male) childhood best friend were too old to be that close anymore—there was still a clamor of unnecessary side conversations and beer-spilling from the crowd. This audible chatter was present even through the Shakes’ “hit,” “Hold On.” It led me to wonder, should a band have to prove itself at its own album release show—and for its debut, no less?
Howard seemed unaffected, though, alternating between baring her soul on songs like “I Found You” and ripping through other Boys & Girls and EP tracks with a punk-like rawr. Despite having just released their debut, the Shakes even played a new song last night (perhaps a prolific output of material will be the one way in which the Shakes are similar to the Black Keys, to whom they have been lazily compared).
The future is bright for the Alabama Shakes, especially if they can find a way to capture the energy of their live shows in the studio. For now, they’re just work on converting the unconverted, one stage at a time.
Critical bias: The guy who spilled beer on my shoes, stood right in front of me, then condescendingly noted, “little bit of journalism going on right here, eh?” while motioning toward my notebook put me in a slightly crotchety mood.
Overheard: “Who does she [front woman Brittany Howard] remind you of?” “Janis. Totes Janis [Joplin].”
Random notebook dump: Why was it a big deal that the Black Keys “sold out” when they allowed Zales to synch “I’ll Be Your Man” in a commercial, yet when the Shakes do it with “You Ain’t Alone”, no one bats an eye?