Alabama Shakes: Souled Out at the Hollywood Palladium by Sarah Mosqueda
Here’s the thing about Alabama Shakes. The group of indie kids from Athens, Alabama come to us at a time when the need for real rock and roll bands is great. They’ve managed to mine a gritty, bluesly sound from the dubstep-littered landscape, that although retro is not in the least bit old fashion. They earned three Grammy nominations this year for Best New Artist, Best Rock Performance for their hit, “Hold On” and Best Recording Package for their first album, Boys & Girls. Suffice to say, the hype that surrounds this group is undeniable and expectations for the sold out crowd at the first of two Hollywood Palladium dates (July 17th and July 18th) are high.
So when Brittany Howard (lead vocals/guitar) Zac Cockrell (guitar), Ben Tanner (keyboards) and Steve Johnson (drums) take the stage for “Rise to the Sun” the energy is palpable. They follow swiftly with “Hang Loose,” the groove of its opening riffs sending the crowd into an idyllic sway.
Shakes is a rock and roll band and they man their instruments as such. Guitar riffs are crisp and clear and unwittingly fast, the bass lines creep steadily, drums rollick and the entire sound is rounded out with the earthy girth of the organ.
And then there’s that voice. Howard effortlessly slides from purring whisper to full fledge howl. A comparison to Janis Joplin is the most obvious, despite it being decidedly trite. It’s a comparison reserved for any woman with an unconventional look with a powerful and unconventional voice to match. But you’d be hard pressed to come up with a female vocalist since Joplin who has married raw emotion with unbelievable talent as Howard has done.
“Always Alright,” (off the Silver Linings Playbook soundtrack) begins by steadily rolling along and builds momentum until irrupting into musical madness. They rip through “Hold On” and “I Ain’t the Same” with a tightness that easily stands up to their studio recording. And while some critics might argue that sounding exactly like you sound on the record doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good live band, I’d say this groups ability to uncannily duplicate such fine work is a feat in and of itself.
And for a group that so seamlessly melds rockabilly Americana with garage rock, I am surprised at how many of their songs actually play like ballads. “Be Mine” and “Heartbreaker” sound like the most gut-wrenchingly soulful stylings of Otis Redding and the like. And under the red spotlight, with the audience rocking slowly in a blissfully collective slow dance, it works. Because whether Alabama Shakes is tearing it up or cooling it down, they are indisputably soulful.
Howard is able to conjure up the emotion necessary to make you feel something, like during the encore when she abandons her guitar to petition to the audience with outstretched hand on “I Still Ain’t Got What I Want.”
She headbangs with such fluid motion, handles her guitar so expertly, and sings so that her voice soars up and out, burrowing deep under your skin to force out goose bumps, that it’s hard to imagine her ever doing anything else for a living, least of all postal service work (which is what she did pre-Shakes.)
It’s the incontestable realism at work here makes it clear that although Alabama Shakes is new to the sold out show circuit, they are not new to the souled out show circuit. And they make no qualms about it.
“This here is the bridge,” Howard says during one of their numbers, “This is the part where I’m supposed to talk to you. But I don’t know what to say,” she readily admits. “Tonight, I’ve got nothing for you. Maybe you have something for me?”
Shakes closes with a rambunctious “Heavy Chevy,” the perfect ending to a souled out night.