“a genuine, word-of-mouth, go-see-them-then-tell-10-friends-how-amazing-they-are thing” – NME on Alabama Shakes
Alabama Shakes roared into the conversation as a major breakthrough artist of 2011 via an early endorsement/introduction by Thursday’s show promoters and influential music blog Aquarium Drunkard. This first nudge in the right direction was followed by a huge overnight surge in notoriety at the CMJ Music Marathon in October.
At their debut performance in the city in early 2012, Alabama Shakes proved to the people of New Orleans in a One Eyed Jacks-turned-sardine-can what all the unprecedented yammerin’ is all about.
As an aside, when the folks at the Toulouse Street venue say they are having an early show, they mean it. This night saw performances by three bands wrapped up by 10 p.m., causing us to miss the opening acts and arrive just as the Shakes were taking the stage. The chills-inducing set instilled pure musical salvation into what could’ve otherwise been an uncomfortable hour in the velvet-draped bordello style saloon.
(Most) fans heeded the early show warning, arriving early to see what all the fuss was about over this hyperbole-inducing band of buddies from Athens, Alabama. Right out of the gate, the band locked up the focused gaze of the crowd, mesmerizing with a hermetically tight sound and strong instrumental interplay from the start, which matched the jawdropping vocal performance that would unfold as the set grew on (more on that later).
Alabama Shakes engendered one of those rare ephemeral moments (in an otherwise rowdy on-stage performance) when the crowd mostly seemed too dumbfounded to engage, hoot and holler for the first half of the set, lost in the realness and power of this beast from the heart of the Southland.
The early portion of the set was highlighted by moments of pure and syrupy band syncopation (see “On Your Way“) that would be contrasted by a raw and uproarious latter half to the show.
The band kept things straight-laced on the first leg, working within the confines of a few familiar blues and gospel arrangements rooted in the soil of the Southland — moaningly slow at times and fiery trudging and room-filling when the tempo picks up. These more familiar sounds were highlighted on the band’s insta-famous EP and were later traded for some interesting hybrid compositions — including a couple of Dick Dale-meets-Carl Perkins surf-a-billy tunes that stood out.
The brief set blew by in a blink, but not before silver-tongued lead singer Brittany Howard took full command of the room, stomping around the stage and gaining the house’s full and utmost attention, while asking with a beggar’s emphasis: “I hope you really love me/And I hope you like me too.”
It’s hard to conceive of a more impassioned or raw talent out there than Howard, and at this point in her career, she is still brimming with newfangled enthusiasm over the recent onslaught of support the band is experiencing. The well-deserved comparisons to Janis Joplin are unavoidable and neither an insult to Joplin nor a statement about any lack of originality for Howard.
The bespectacled Shakes’ front woman finessed her way down the dark end of the street on “You Ain’t Alone” with a bell-clear high scream before bellowing out the signature throaty rasps made famous by the legendary dynamo Joplin on “Hold On.”
On Thursday, the patrons paid $10 and in return received 100 percent energy from the band and its singer, who gave every ounce of oomph, talent and energy in her possession to each verse, delivered with an apocalyptic urgency (just in case). Sultry, showstopping and soulful, the Shakes’ lead vocalist, at first look, appears to be a generational talent, touring with a band with dynamics to match. It’s a combination that a pack of experienced record label suits simply couldn’t create if they tried. Throughout the 55-minute set, the music stood on a pedestal above all else, as it should at any great performance.
With the band’s debut LP on the way via ATO Records on April 10th titled Boys And Girls, there is no limit to where and how far freight train will roll.
Wesley Hodges writes about music for Live Music Blog: NOLA and for NolaVie.