Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls Album Review, April 07th Baltimore Concert Review
With today’s omnipresence of mp3 players, free streaming music services, and WiFi hubs, it’s no surprise that people today have fewer barriers than ever to discovering new music. More than ever, music fans have it squarely within their power to reach out and discover for themselves the “next biggest thing” without being guided there by the advertising campaigns of big record companies.
The downside to this wild explosion of openness is that the several (perhaps arbitrarily) definitive sources of music taste-making have been replaced by hundreds upon hundreds of internet-enabled outlets (and hey, I include myself in this category) that all claim to know who the next big band in town is. In principle, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with anyone voicing their opinion on these matters, but in practice, the pages upon pages of virtual ink that are spilled daily onto the interwebs in support of some young, upstart band create the dreaded “hype” phenomenon. Hype is the excessively magnified attention, and subsequent expectations, heaped on a band well before they are ready for or deserving of it. It’s a damned tough crucible of a test.
Few bands are equipped to survive the added pressure, and some people decide they no longer like a band simply because it has begun to receive too much attention. People that have been with a band’s music from its first days suddenly find it has lost its special qualities once the first whiff of national exposure comes along. Or maybe the band was never very good to begin with, and their hype status was attained through some gimmick or fad. At the end of the day, it’s easy to understand why massive swells of hype can put off as many people as they turn on.
Thankfully, the Alabama Shakes seem to be riding the wave as gracefully and as unassumingly as possible, managing to downplay any insincere notions of undeserved hype and putting everything they have into crafting some terrifically earnest rock and roll.
I caught the Alabama Shakes on Saturday night at Rams Head Live in Baltimore. Prior to that, I had seen them play two songs on Conan and that was all I needed to be hooked. Sometimes a new band just gives you that musical gut punch demanding your attention. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one who had taken notice since the venue was completely sold out (their buzzed about gig at the recent South by Southwest festival certainly couldn’t have hurt either). After a decent but not-great, and slightly too country-ish for my tastes, opener in Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires, the crowd was quite ready to see the Alabama act they had come for.
In what amounted to little more than a tease and tension builder, the Shakes slowed things down right from the start by calmly plucking away at “Goin’ To The Party.” That song served as the night’s mission statement, even if it didn’t portend the musical direction that was to come. The real party began on the second song, “Hold On,” the track that has served as the rocket fuel for the Shakes’ launch into the world of media exposure and buzz. The band’s debut album, Boys & Girls, wouldn’t even drop until a few days later, so for many in attendance, that was probably the one song they all knew and loved already. And indeed, it was a highlight of the show. That track encapsulates everything there is to love about the Shakes – from that slinky, lethargic southern-fried bass line to the instantly recognizable classic quality of the guitar fuzz to the true star of the show – singer Brittany Howard’s remarkably powerful and passionate voice.
Howard is the linchpin of this band and she has some pipes that were built to be let loose in a live setting. She’s a bit gravelly, a bit mournful, and all sorts of bombastic. Her style hearkens back to the days of the classic singers of rock and soul, when a little bit of grit was a good thing, and emotion dripped out of a song’s every pore (which was possible because songs were actually allowed to breathe). There is very little about this band that suggests they were born in modern times. The songs are catchy but not glossy, inspired but without artifice. Their live show perfectly shadowed this ethos. Absent almost any sort of showmanship, we were treated to Howard pouring herself into her wailing and crooning, continually pushing her sweaty glasses back up the bridge of her nose after she finished cheerily foot stomping, and all the while the rest of the band, firmly rooted around bassist Zac Cockrell and his sublimely mellow cool, continued to fill this Baltimore venue with the sounds of pure southern rock n’ soul.
As for the album, it’s a great starting point for this young band. It’s catchy and it has all the flavor and attitude expressed on stage, but there’s just some tiny element that wasn’t captured in the transfer to hard copy. That’s OK though. Alabama Shakes aren’t just another band riding out the indeterminate waves of hype. They’ll be around for a little bit, and they’ll get better at capturing the magic of their live show on record. Go see these guys and gal if you get the chance.
(And just a note to the obnoxious fucking drunk girls that were next to me all throughout the concert, talking throughout the show at a level loud enough for the entire room to hear: Shut the fuck up. And stop criticizing the singer because you think she’s too fat and could stand to lose weight (an actual quote: “She’s good, but she’d be amazing if she lost like 15 pounds.”) Why the hell were you even there? It surely couldn’t have been to spend 5 minutes trying to guess Howard’s shoe size or mock her hair and clothing. You juvenile assholes are disgusting. And yes, I wear foam earplugs to concerts. No, I don’t have a medical condition, but I’d sure like to avoid developing one. So stop tapping me on the shoulder and screaming “HEY!” And you should know that I could hear you planning to rip the earplugs from my ears and toss them into the crowd. You two losers were completely oblivious to the show being put on in front of you, and for your completely boorish behavior, I hope you woke up with a nasty case of tinnitus ringing through your brain and causing in you the same aggravation which you undoubtedly bring to everyone who is subjected to your nails-on-chalkboard voices.)