Alabama Shakes

There’s an all too rare moment this evening when the whole audience falls silent. No chatter, no tweeting, no click of camera phones… just silence… broken only by a howl of pure pain from the band’s vocalist. Hell, even our goosebumps got goosebumps. Yep, Alabama Shakes are in town.

First up though new London four piece Childhood chilled out the capacity crowd with their woozily jangleriffic blend of 4AD records finest mixed with Floydian style rock outs.

Childhood

The generously afroed lead singer and his three spaced out friends (seriously…one of ‘em looked well…ahem…chilled) veer between the blissful surf tickled pop of Girls and heavier numbers that really get the sap rising (heck, it’s spring… sap should be rising).

Childhood

Debut single Blue Velvet in particular hit the spot tonight and is well worth digging out for those moments when you fancy a phat one… that’ll be 24/7 then.

Although they formed as far back as the dim and distant days of 2009 Alabama Shakes rise has been pretty swift.

Alabama Shakes

Having only released their debut EP in September 2011 the hype machine went into overdrive and deals with Rough Trade and Jack White’s uber cool Third Man label pretty much sealed the deal. Oh…and that guarantee of success (here in the UK at least)… a prime slot on Later… soon followed too. So, what’s all the fuss about y’all? Well the fuss is standing just a few feet away in a packed HMV Institute, belting out some of the finest primal rock n’soul you’re likely to see this side of the Mississippi… and (to paraphrase the ads) she’s worth it.

Alabama Shakes

Brittany Howard, the ‘bama’s lead vocalist, possesses the kind of voice that could well raise both Janis Joplin and Otis Redding from the grave to see who the hell the competition is. Capable of sounding sexy, fragile and as powerful as a H-bomb (often all in the same line) she gives a delightfully unselfconscious performance, pulling all kinds of unflattering faces in the search for that perfect note and redefining that well worn phrase ‘givin’ it all you’ve got’.

Alabama Shakes

Kicking off the set with the brief declaration of intent that is Going To The Party the Shakes bravely follow it up with Hold On. Bravely? Well, unless you’ve been hiding under a large wi-fi-less rock for the past few months you’ll know the band’s big breakthrough single Hold On, a smouldering bowl of countrified soul that gives hope to the hopeless and love to the unloved. It’s pretty much become their theme tune and I reckon most bands would want to hold that baby back for an encore. Shooting your proverbial load just a few minutes into the set might’ve backfired a little, especially for a relatively new band. In fact this evening the opposite seemed to happen. Hold On was the vocal equivalent of a warm up at the gym for Brittany’s voice and, as the set wore on both it and she just seemed to get better and better. At just 23 years old there’s that crack in her vocals that hints at the pain that’s often behind truly great vocalists (in Brittany’s case I guess this includes the death of her older sister from a brain tumour), and it’s not something you can fake. Ya either got it or you don’t. And she got it. By the bucket load. It’s not just the vocals though, she’s a decent rock and blues guitarist too and it would be shameful to ignore the rest of the band who provide the perfect backdrop to the theatrics, groovin’ away in fine style.

Alabama Shakes

As you’d expect much of the set drew from the band’s debut album, Boys and Girls, which topped the first ever Record Store Chart back in April (now there’s a question for the pub quiz), but some of the best gems were the non album cuts. Worryin’ Blues is the kind of song Jack White would sell his soul for and tonight saw Brittany at her testifyin’ best, frequently moving from soulful pleading to full on explosive rage. New song, the countrified rock n’roll of Making Me Itch, just begged for Jerry Lee to step up and pound the keys and Heavy Chevy ramped up the rock all the way to 11 to practically blow the place apart. Sending us all home safely the band encored with On Your Way, with Brittany singing of “the promised land”. Judging by the smiles on the faces of the crowd I reckon we were already there. Well bless mah soul…

Words by Daron Billings, email Daron.
Photos by Wayne Fox, email Wayne.

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