NOTE: The Cajun Tomato is invading the Midwest today, in the form of an Alabama Shakes concert review from correspondent Brett Schweinberg.
Twice during the Alabama Shakes’ show earlier this month at Chicago’s Subterranean I covered my ears. It had nothing to do with Brittany Howard’s wailing vocals or the sound emitting from the quartet’s instruments. Both times I shielded my ears the crowd of around 375 overwhelmed the P.A. system with their cheers.
The Athens, Alabama, southern rock revivalists were scheduled to play Lollapalooza before a thunderstorm wiped out their set. They will return to the Windy City to play the 2,500-seat Riviera in December.
The band’s Sept. 11 set at Subterranean required patience – people lined up as early as noon – and a willingness to skirt work responsibilities. But it was worth it.
In addition to her powerful singing, Howard played most of the lead guitar interludes that make the band’s debut record “Boys and Girls” so engaging. The show’s most vocal moments, however, came when Howard put down her guitar and worked the crowd.
On “Be Mine”, Howard strutted around the stage, at one point hanging on to a low beam to lean towards the crowd in a soulful wail.
As a musician, Howard’s voice is a phenomenal asset, but, as a
performer, her face sets her apart. Her cheeks appear
broader than the top of her head, giving her face an almost cartoonish dimension nearly as expressive as her voice.
And what a voice she has.
It’s hard to fawn over Howard’s vocal prowess too much. She moves from a growl to a croon at a moment’s notice, with an inflection that leaves no doubt to the emotion she’s trying to convey.
All these attributes combined make Howard a potential once-in-a-generation talent.
The brilliance of the band’s other three members is they compliment Howard’s natural abilities. They avoid bombastic moments. Instead they cede the spotlight to Howard, which she so ably fills.
Between openers, a friend and I stepped outside for a cigarette. There we found Howard and struck up a conversation.
A few interesting facts emerged, the first of which was she smoked. Her personality was equal parts laid back and charming.
The band’s meteoric rise – a scheduled Lolla set, their CD being sold at Starbucks, etc. – actually felt slow, Howard said. The band has played together for around four years. They started off playing two- or three-song sets.
Howard started singing at the age 11. Her southern upbringing might lead some to believe she came up in a church choir. That wasn’t the case, she explained.
As I exited the venue, I wondered how the band could continue
to create music of this caliber. That’s when I remembered Howard’s critique of her own voice, and was filled with hope.
“Actually, I feel like my singing has gotten better over the last
year,” Howard said.