Words By Courtney Pitman, Photos By Jason Bender
Alabama Shakes came in hot on Friday at 9:30 Club, their first show in three months. And by Alabama Shakes, I mean Brittany Howard and her backing band. Such is her presence that the rest of the Shakes could have been those fembots from Billy Mack’s “Christmas Is All Around” video and still no one noticed.
I’m hardly hyperbolizing; I’ve never been in the same building as a voice that powerful. The 25-year-old has an otherworldly control over her vocals, swapping simple and soulful ballads with guttural rock and roll and wailing that would seem unhinged if it wasn’t so consistently seamless. Admittedly, my moniker would probably be closer to a Pennsylvania Spasm than an Alabama Shake, but Brittany evokes more soul with her left elbow than I could even fathom if armed with my own gospel choir. I had goosebumps twenty seconds into “Rise To The Sun” simply in anticipation of the wailing breakdown line, “and it blows awaaaaaaaay.”
Many of the best moments of the evening were the schizophrenic breakdowns at the end of songs. The outro to “Be Mine,” a crescendo of a showstopper, found Brittany grimacing, pacing, and spastically howling, “Be my baby” for almost a minute.
Juxtaposing her vocal presence and showmanship, Brittany has a surprisingly shy charisma between songs. “I’m not a very good speaker. I’m not very eloquent talking to people,” she admitted. The band leverages this successfully with “Heat Lightning,” in which she puts a melody to her awkward crowd banter, “So when I was up there I was real nervous, I didn’t know what to say / But you make me feel so good.” The crowd responded in kind, and an unprovoked sing-along during fan-favorite “Hold On” seemed to provide comfort. That comfort extended to those in the audience as well, as the entire 9:30 Club joined in for the waning moments of the show to assure one another, “You ain’t alone / let me be your ticket home.”
Given their limited recording history—2012’s LP Boys & Girls and “Always Alright,” the reason you sat all the way through the end credits after Silver Lining’s Playbook—it was a pleasant surprise that they racked up a 19 song set list. Alabama Shakes sprinkled new/unrecorded offerings throughout the set, leading with “I Don’t Wanna Fight No More,” which succeeds as it finds the group at their funkiest. Alternatively, I thought “Miss You” was Boys & Girls track “You Ain’t Alone” for at least a minute, and it follows a pretty well worn path of slow soul transitioning into Brittany wailing the song to a finale.
The bottom line? You know when you’re witnessing something special. That tingle in the back of your stomach solidifies into a dense knot that at once roots you to the spot and lifts you out of your own body. Brittany Howard is something special.
Before Alabama Shakes tore down the house, Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires tore down the house. Another Alabama band, the group blended high-energy southern rock with an element of grunge that worked in a big way, and their single ‘The Company Man’ was a notable standout. By the end of the set the guitar player was down in the crowd—on top of the lead singer’s shoulders—safe to say it was a solid Friday night.
I Don’t Wanna Fight No More (New)
Rise To The Sun
Makin’ Me Itch
I Found You
Boys & Girls
I Ain’t The Same
It Wasn’t Me
On Your Way
Gimme All Your Love (New)
Miss You (New)
You Ain’t Alone