Just after the sun set on Metropolitan Avenue, Brittany Howard made good on the assumption that she’d deliver the one of the best performances at CMJ 2015 — and she did so basically blind.
Howard — best known for roaring her way through the modern rock anthems of Alabama Shakes — has a new project, Thunderbitch, which just released their first (and maybe only, who knows) self-titled album with ATO Records. Thunderbitch has her donning a wig, shades, a wardrobe a Hell’s Angel would covet and alabaster makeup to vamp on the kinds of chords that had mothers clutching pearls to their flummoxed chests in 1957. The velvet curtain at the Knitting Factory parted to reveal Howard mounted on a motorcycle for her grand entrance, which she ditched in favor of “Leather Jacket.” In the hour that Thunderbitch spent stoking the howling, sardine can-crowded Knitting Factory, the makeup started to melt from the hairline of her plastic bangs, the perspiration washing away streaks of the caked white cream from her frenzied hands and contorting face. Splashes of it made their way to her black jeans; smears of it congealed in fingerprints on her guitar, and pools of it coated the collar of her leather jacket as the chorus caterwauled on. “It holds my soul in/I ain’t ever gonna take it off/It’s gonna rot off my bones” is Thunderbitch’s M.O. when it comes to her uniform, but Howard’s alter-ego can hardly conceal the prowess of the woman behind her at her prime.
Hours after the lights went dark, faces were scrubbed clean and the crowd dispersed to sing their praises, the members of Thunderbitch found themselves down the street at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, and this is where Mitch Jones — who plays keys with Thunderbitch and Fly Golden Eagle back in Nashville — tells us that Howard barely saw a thing during the show. The sunglasses had little to do with it, as that face paint did a damn fine job of obscuring her vision all on its own. You’d never know it, as Howard stepped to the very edge of that stage to reach for the outstretched hands (and faces, see above) of the audience. She collapsed to her knees for her solos and bounced around with her bandmates for a series of dance breaks. She’s that good that she doesn’t NEED all five sense at her disposal. For Howard, hearing is enough, as it gives her the ammunition she needs to hurl volleys of her own from her ferocious chords and the merciless stride of her striking ax.
Thunderbitch is rounded out by members of Clear Plastic Masks and Fly Golden Eagle; Howard’s strengths onstage are complimented by the surgical precision with which they shake their tambourines and make their bass lines strut and guitar solos scream. (Andrew Katz is a great foil for Howard’s Thunderbitch and served up rough-around-the-edges-Jagger moves for days.) Alabama Shakes brings out the best in Howard as a songwriter and singer, while Thunderbitch shines a brighter glare on Howard as a rock deity, a tempest of a temptress, a sage performer who sees the value in a bit of fun and can’t help but beam while singing songs fueled by backyard bonfires and an ample supply of cheap beer. Howard has long since proven herself as a rocker to watch, and “Hold On” remains a favorite with die-hard fans and new listeners alike. But Thunderbitch is a thoroughly enjoyable detour that further drives this point home, so here’s hoping projects like this keep Howard front and centerstage in between albums and sold-out tours with Alabama Shakes. The sounds of yesteryear can’t sound stale or tired when they’re helmed by a woman with a throat of fire and the guitar chops to back it up, and that’s what separates Thunderbitch from the pompadour-sporting guys who keep reviving the tricks of Chuck Berry, Elvis and other vintage rockers in spades.
This was the fourth show Thunderbitch had yet to play, according to Jones, but here’s hoping these one-off gigs give way to something of a slightly more regular occurrence. That Harley may make for a cumbersome set piece to haul on tour and the makeup may seep into Howard’s searing eyes, but Thunderbitch seems like the kind of rock act who’s into giving the people what they want. And what they want is leather to rot — and rock — in, blind spells and familiar riffs aside.