“These boys behind me, there’s the Alabama Shakes right there,” singer and guitarist Brittany Howard noted as she gestured toward her bandmates at the end of the first of two sold-out performances at the Beacon Theatre. “That’s my family.”
It’s a family the 25-year-old former mail carrier has spearheaded to serious acclaim, and one that was eager to show off its new jewels at the Beacon. Though their new album, Sound and Color, isn’t out for another month (it’s released April 21 on ATO Records), they didn’t hold back on new songs and liberally sprinkled proven favorites from their 2012 debut, Boys and Girls, with mostly unfamiliar tunes. The show was bookended by two new tracks, the bluesy “Dunes” and gospel-soulful “Over My Head,” slow and new being a considerable test for even the most passionate of fans. But dedicated the fans were, with most jumping up before the first note was played and some — notably, the two enraptured guys slow-dancing as best they could while trapped in their seats — clearly loving the quiet romance of the set.
Alabama Shakes has a classic sound with wide appeal, yet it’s far from the “mainstream” moniker. And though the Beacon’s audience mostly skewed older and white, it was an odd mix of many sorts, who filled the air with an aroma, well, more of a stink, of equal parts pot and pungent fabric conditioner.
But that’s the Shakes’ music: a melting pot rooted in Sun, Stax, and Muscle Shoals; and blues, soul, gospel, and r&b. Yet there’s a little jam-band (not too long-winded) groove lurking, and even post-rock guitar trilling going on, the latter giving this band’s classic veneer a little edge. Just a little. It’s impossible to lump the Shakes in with the mainstream neo-soul crowd (Sam Smith, Adele, Bruno Mars, et al.) whose urbanized version of gospel is as different from steamy Memphis soul as Chicago blues is from the raw, primal Delta kind.
Topping this sumptuous Southern stew is Howard’s big, powerful voice, which she pushed from loveliness to loneliness, and from desperation to despair. She acted out prosaic operettas, vocally bear-hugging the hell out of each letdown or triumph, and occasionally floating and soaring and letting go. Howard uses a big canvas and bold colors. But for all her passions and prowess, only a fool would presume this is Howard’s show, and she certainly isn’t a grandstander. She’s not that silly. She thanked the new addition to the band’s touring lineup, a trio of backing singers whose harmonies added elegant filigree to Howard’s falsetto on “This Feeling.” Without asking the audience to do so (no “Give it up, ladies and gents!”), she applauded regular touring keys player Paul Horton, whose twinkling piano licked around the edges of the smoochy soul slow dance “Miss You,” and fellow tour keysman Ben Tanner, who added warm washes of organ to “I Found You.”
Whether she’s licking and stabbing with her guitar, or caterwauling with her voice, Howard attacked heavier songs like a lioness, lovingly lulling and then pouncing for the kill, straight to the throat, and on to rip out the heart. New single “Don’t Wanna Fight” was a triumph, a superbly arranged number that, for all its twangy boogie, drummer Steve Johnson traces with a disco beat that takes Saturday Night Fever from Brooklyn to the South.
“Always Alright” followed up with more delightful madness: Howard barked like Kings of Leon’s Caleb Followill’s elder, wiser sister, and the whole band joined her in filling the song with crazy euphoria and desperation. But there was that secret weapon: guitarist Heath Fogg, who normally pretties up Howard’s guitar romps and adds subtle strokes to her bold lashings. Not this time, for “Always Alright” he was lashing and slashing fit to burn.
If there was a glue, a seamless, invisible bond, then it was bassist Zac Cockrell, the band’s co-founder, whose big smooth strokes kept the moody pulse of “Future People” steaming. He’s Howard’s foil and equalizer, and like the rest of this family, the bedrock for her achingly told life and love tales.
Sadly for anyone exploring blues roots, the opening band, a Malian group called Songhoy Blues, was M.I.A. due to travel troubles. Though that band’s absence on opening night left much of the audience with naught to do but hit the bar, you got the feeling that Alabama Shakes didn’t need anyone to warm their seat.
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