The Alabama Shakes Turn Back the Clock at Bowery Ballroom [4/11/12]
Led by the rise of Mad Men, New York’s recent retro hysteria has undoubtedly invaded the fashion world, and is partially responsible for increased consumption of lunchtime martinis, scotch nightcaps, and the reemergence of flasks as viable money-making goods. But the music scene? Well, if you’re a vinyl collector with time to browse some of the wonderful record stores from Alphabet City to St. Mark’s, then yes. Quality, nationally touring live music permeated by an old school groove? Somewhat scarce. And as such, the Alabama Shakes proved to be the hottest ticket in town, selling out both the Bowery Ballroom and the Music Hall of Williamsburg, while squeezing in a streaming MTV album release party in the Studio at Webster Hall.
Just like their last jaunt on the Lower East Side, the Alabama Shakes – Brittany Howard (vox/guitar), Heath Fogg (guitar), Zac Cockrell (bass), Steve Johnson (drums) – took their sixties-soul-influenced music and performed with raw, palpable emotion. With a voice that blends the gritty intensity of Janice Joplin and the power of Etta James, lead singer Brittany Howard is something to behold. A true soul prophet with pipes that command attention; her feelings are interwoven into her vocals. Her guitar chops are likewise – the same earnest blues chords and scales that you’d hear from a southern rocker who spent an entire adolescence jamming along to Lynyrd Skynyrd and Allman Brothers.
The whole experience was akin to stepping into a time machine. Sort of. Even much of the crowd had that “throwback” vibe – less scene-y than other sold out buzz band shows – with many longtime classic southern rock fans in attendance. Eschewing a fancy schmancy light setup in favor of simple groovy colors, the only reminders of modern concert trends were the handful of iPhones raised in the air (RIP lighters).
The Athens-based band played almost exclusively from their debut album Boys and Girls (out now on ATO), with Howard providing a background story to introduce the title track. The song is about growing apart from a close childhood friend because he was a boy, and they were getting too old to remain platonic friends. “I thought that was bullshit,” she remarked. Other highlights of the night were the single “Hold On,” as well as the wonderful new tune called “Making Me Itch.” The latter expanded beyond guitar and bass, providing ample room for the keyboard player to improvise. For the more familiar stuff, the band sounded as tight in person as they do on wax, but the tones of the dual guitar setup were emboldened significantly.
The clincher of Wednesday night’s show was the crowd: at times, the mob was enamored by the music, quietly letting it fill the air. Otherwise it was lively, friendly, and generally reciprocated the warmth and friendliness conveyed by the band. Howard was keenly aware of the affection being showered on her by the crowd, and led a hushed call-and-response at the end of the night. In between calls and responses, she gushed about how great it was to receive so much love from New Yorkers, despite a laundry list of idiosyncrasies that concluded with “..and I drive a Hummer to my mailbox because I’m fucking frivolous!” The crowd’s response? Wild applause, followed by one last round of “DO YOU LIIIIKE ME?” from Howard. Yes, Brittany. We really like you.
The band concluded their New York stop last night at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. They return in May to open for Jack White at Roseland Ballroom. On the up and up, fo sho.
–Writeup and photos by Benjy Tocker