All words: Jeb Gavin
All photos: Sam Higgins
There is a magical place (if the stories are to be believed), where a myriad of southern music genres come together and rub against one another in the grooves of records and pits of CDs. The heady stew of funk and rock and soul that burbles forth is held sacred, and even the name of this magical place is whispered in reverent tones for fear it might cease to exist: Muscle Shoals. There are few bands willing to chase this sound; it requires tremendous effort to get it right without dropping off into parody. The newest act to court the sonic history of north Alabama is the aptly titled Alabama Shakes. I had the opportunity to take their measure this past Saturday night up in Baltimore at Ram’s Head Live!
Because of the rarity of this combination of influences, the tendency is to compare newer acts to the few successful contemporary acts, while pointing out influences and references to performers long since past. But I really don’t want to compare Alabama Shakes to bands like the Drive-By Truckers or Lucero. For one thing, I’ve seen both bands kill it live numerous times. For another, both acts have a decade or more of touring, tweaking their lineup and style. Few acts reconcile country rock and soul as well, and it’d be unfair to prematurely judge anyone by those standards.
Opener Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires were refreshing, though more country than I was expecting, owing to bent and stretched guitar notes. That’s not to say they weren’t solid, but the soul and gospel coming through their songs is more a matter of phrasing and harmonies at the moment, pleasant but subtle. I find myself looking forward to the release of their new album to hear more of the band, but also because of the clever reference to an old spiritual.
The headliner was harder to pin down. It was a short set, just under 50 minutes of music shifting between roots rock and roll, vamping soul ballad, and southern rock. A quick encore followed, though the older crowd didn’t seem dismayed by the brief show. This was a good show, by a good band, but not yet a great one. The band seems comfortable enough on stage, but did little other than play their songs. Not that a spectacle is necessary, but the show itself seemed low key for a Saturday night, focusing entirely on the music at hand.
In that vein, the music is pretty good. They’re not the Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section, yet. For argument’s sake, they’re not even the Atlanta Rhythm Section. What they are however, is a refreshing take on a niche sound. Vocalist Brittany Howard invites comparisons galore. Standing there with guitar in hand, my first thought was to make an Odetta comparison, until I heard her sing.
Everyone seems to have an opinion on from where her vocal style came. The references I’ve heard most often are Billie Holiday (neither raspy nor deep enough), or Adele (making Adele out to be blue-eyed soul, which she isn’t). I spent most of the next day pulling old Stax records looking for similar vocals. The closest I’ve found were singers like Carla Thomas or Jeanne Dolphus of Jeanne and the Darlings. More recently, you could make a solid argument she sounds like a contemplative Bettye LaVette or staid Sharon Jones. But all these comparisons fail sooner or later. I was lost, until my father rightly pointed out she sounds like Janis Joplin, except not pickled in whiskey.
The rest of the sound is easier to grasp. The bass lines felt laconic by design, acting as an anchor for other lighter and airier sounds. The guitar work toggles back and forth between rock and roll standards from back before the Beatles landed and the less rigid but stuttering riffs of Curtis Mayfield. Keyboardist Ben Tanner slides comfortably between electric piano and organ, mostly keeping pace but occasionally throwing in a solid run- just a taste, though, nothing fancy or overbearing. The sound comes together well, without want of more keys or a backing horn section, though those are always an option when wading through the Shoals.
I’m curious to hear more from Alabama Shakes. I would definitely see them again, but I’m wary of the difficulty of mixing so much together, hoping to produce something new. Here’s hoping next time around they’re still playing great music, but really selling it. When I go to see a show like this, I want to learn on Saturday night what I should’ve waited to hear about from the preacher on Sunday morning.