If you'll permit the minor indiscretion, I'll skip to the punch line of a review of last night's Alabama Shakes concert at the Music Hall of Williamsburg: the show was awesome. Period. If you have a chance to catch them on their current tour, which hopscotches between the U.S. and Europe over the next several months, get thee to your local venue and enjoy one of the best live bands you'll see this summer. Double period.
Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's get to 22-year-old singer-songwriter and guitarist Brittany Howard, the most talked-about soul singer in the country, if not the world. From the very first time she opens her mouth, you can't help but make the obvious comparisons: she's one part Janis Joplin, one part Tina Turner, and one part Amy Winehouse. The woman can bring it with such force and passion that one only hopes she's got some magic elixir that will keep her throat undamaged for the next -- let us be hopeful here -- 50 years or so.
To contemplate her wardrobe, though -- if you can even call it that -- you're more likely to be thinking about your town librarian. Dressed in a frumpy flower-print dress, black leggings, and a pair of slippers she had discarded by the second song, the look isn't exactly memorable, although it does add to Howard's disarming charm. It's not about the clothes, you see. It's about THE VOICE.
Try watching her sing and the disconnect is still there. The expressions she makes seem like the kind a teenager would make in their basement with no one watching -- like her mouth in a funny-looing oval as she belts out crowd-favorite Hold On, the first song on their recently-released (and quite excellent) debut album, Boys & Girls. And the expressions probably are just that -- this Alabama foursome (plus a keyboardist for the road) was actually playing in their basement just months ago. The key to Howard's stage presence, in other words, is that she doesn't really have stage presence. Did I forget to mention THE VOICE?
(When he was asked why he often sounds like he's singing under his breath, indie favorite M. Ward explained that he'd practiced in his parents' kitchen and had to do so because he didn't want to wake them up. Howard clearly didn't have to keep her voice down while she was practicing, but there's something similar going on here. Her performance isn't choreographed. They've taken the show from the basement and put it directly in front of the crowd. God, that's refreshing.)
The band, which includes Steve Johnson (drums), Heath Fogg (guitar), Zac Cockrell (bass), and Ben Tanner (keyboards), provided ample and unvarnished support for Howard as she effortlessly hypnotized the crowd while alternating between belting it out like Janis and captivating with lower-key numbers that have faint echoes of Nina Simone. (Okay the comparisons end there. The point is that she is constantly reminding you of some other awesome singer.)
Alabama Shakes play a stripped down show. There wasn't anything on the stage save the instruments and a couple of amps. No light show, no smoke machines, just sexy-bluesy soul from the first song, Party, through the closer, Heat Lighting. It's no surprise that the Shakes are opening for Jack White on his tour. Like White, they've found some mystical connection to music that was made long before they were even born while still somehow feeling very now. For both, it's about mastering the basics, and not much more than that. Close your eyes and she could even be Jack White hitting his high registers. (This is not music-by-computer, either. Their soundman looks like he's got the easiest job in music.)
It's almost a sure thing Howard is going to go through some sort of visual transformation as it sinks in that she's not playing in the basement anymore, but instead for a global audience that knows real music when it sees it. No, I'm not talking about a Susan Boyle-style makeover, and yes, I do hope she keeps the Macy Gray hair. But the music doesn't need to change a whit.
When I asked my friend to describe the show, she summed it up in a neat little package: "It's like watching Tina Turner singing in a Mumu while having a stroke... but in a good way." Sounds about right.
Wrapping up the two-hour set, Howard invited the entire audience to Brooklyn Bowl for the afterparty. In that, she actually made clear why an Alabama Shakes show works as well as it does: they're not so far into this thing that they're past sharing what's great about it all with the people who came out to see them. When was the last time you could say that?
Check out some pictures of the Alabama Shakes performing at Webster Hall on April 10: