Public Enemy recorded a song called “Don’t Believe The Hype” over twenty years ago (has it really been that long?), and I’ve always taken that particular sentiment to heart. Whenever a band rockets from obscurity to a nationwide tour with sellout shows in the space of a year, arriving a little too perfectly formed, I don’t believe it is overly cynical to treat said band with a little bit of suspicion. Alabama Shakes, who hail from Athens in that fair state, is just such a band, riding the surprise success of this year’s Boys And Girls, an album which, to these ears, sounds decent enough without having too much of a “wow” factor.
The thing that struck me about that album was how flat and compressed the production sounded, so I was more than a little curious to see how this music sounded on a stage sans the restrictions of the studio. When the curtain at a packed out Fonda Theater opened and the band began their set with mid-album interlude “Pick A Fight,” it was evident that something was different. The song just drifts by on record, but here we were two minutes into a set, and it had already displayed some serious punch.
By the time Alabama Shakes launched into “Hold On,” it struck me that, in addition to some assistance from the label hype machine, Alabama Shakes just might have gained some of this popularity the old-fashioned way. Maybe they have just been playing really good shows for the last year. While musically they never really stray from a template of blues and soul, they nevertheless delivered it with the kind of tight rhythm section and professionalism that is the minimum requirement for this type of show.
So what separates them from a whole slew of other pretenders? The answer is fairly simple and also well-documented. In Brittany Howard, they have a young singer who is the definition of a natural born star. Her physicality on stage, drenched in sweat while strumming hard at her guitar and belting out the band’s hits, was utterly infectious and was fed upon by an apparently ravenous crowd. As for that voice, well, there’s no denying it’s something special.
Ferocious and raw, yet beautifully controlled and versatile. At times she sounded feral, while at other times — most notably while singing the likes of “Heartbreaker” and the album’s title track — the voice sounded intimate and vulnerable. She is the kind of star with universal appeal, hitting all the right notes with authority and honesty, and she is without a doubt the something special that makes one sit up and pay attention to Alabama Shakes.
Apart from a new song and a short but snappy James Brown cover, the band stuck mostly to the material that has earned them an awful lot of column inches this year (or whatever the internet equivalent of column inches may be). I still maintain that they stick too closely to a very old and established template to be truly worthy of untethered acclaim, and they are very good, rather than spectacular, at doing their thing live. However, with a stellar front woman and some seriously catchy stuff in their repertoire, the only way is up for them from here. I may never truly love Alabama Shakes, but from the evidence of an ecstatic crowd at the Fonda Theater on Tuesday, I would say there are plenty who do, and plenty more who will.
For more info on Alabama Shakes, visit their website.