Alabama Shakes are really fucking good, but it’s lead singer Brittany Howard who makes them great. She’s amazing, with a voice in concert as versatile, husky, hooty, and pitch-perfect as it is on record. She’s not a Carla Thomas type—she sounds like Otis Redding himself, all brusque, breathless phrases and idiosyncratic vocalizations. Plus, she plays guitar, a mean fucking guitar, as when she shred a solo at Summerstage yesterday on what may have been a cover of “Maybelline.” (Sorry guys, but the sound was easily lost into the ether, and I was standing back a bit because it was so crowded.)
The band was exceedingly proficient, even cooking at times, but often lacked the Feeling that might have taken them to another level; they were perched between Sam Cooke at the Copa and at the Harlem Square Club—hot, as in the outro to “You Ain’t Alone,” but rarely lost in the heat. Ok, ok, maybe that’s not entirely fair. The easiest comparison for Alabama Shakes is to Sharon Jones, but it’s also inaccurate. Sure, they share an old soul-sound, but Shakes doesn’t just groove, it rocks: “Heartbreaker” reminds me of Dr. Dog; “I Ain’t the Same” sounds like the best-ever outtake from Exile on Main Street.
Yesterday, they played a number of straight rockers, an indication either of where they’ve come from or where they’re going. A headliner with only one album only has so much material to fill a set; it was rounded out with at least one new song and (presumably) covers, most of which were fast-tempoed and three-chorded. They didn’t exhibit much of the dynamic and rhythmic complexity of Boys and Girls. But whatever direction the band moves in, they’re sure to still be awesome—even great, if Brittany sticks around.
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