Update 4/28/15: KCRW have shared a recording of the entire Alabama Shakes set.
When The Alabama Shakes took the stage last night at KCRW’s latest Apogee Session in Santa Monica, I could not stop thinking about the first Hunger Games movie.
The entire band marched efficiently onstage donning all-black outerwear looking like they were mentally prepared for a skirmish, each grabbing their instrument of choice (they also sorta looked like someone invited them to a hella casual funeral, but back to this barely accurate Hunger Games analogy). All were in position: the background singers off to stage-right, the standing band members were flanked by the keyboard players. And then there was Brittany Howard, (Boss Ass) Woman on Fire.
Sporting Prince earrings shaped like the Minneapolis R&B legend’s face, tortoise shell glasses, and a dyed blonde pompadour that looked both like a crown and the top of a torch, Howard was at once regal and gladiatorial. After a brief hello, the frontwoman picked up her wintergreen Gibson SG and launched into the band’s set, with “Miss You”, a new cut from their not-even day old album, Sound & Color.
The track was a harbinger for the destruction ahead. “I’m going to miss you,” Howard delicately crooned at the beginning of the track, and before I realized what had happened the band was a wall of decibels louder as Howard screamed through the final refrain of the song. Okay, this was going to be a huge set.
The Alabama Shakes’ 14-song, hour-long set inside Bob Clearmountain’s intimate recording studio was equivalent to watching someone throw a match into a mile-wide oil slick. What we were hearing was the moment of combustion. The boiling kettle pitched squeal Brittany emits before breaking into “Don’t Wanna Fight” is the final alarm on a bomb detonator after it strikes 00:00. Several moments erupted like this. The most emotionally striking was the midpoint of “Gimme All Your Love” when a caressing guitar phrase transmogrifies into a war march with pulsing drums, dueling guitar riffs, a crunchy solo, and near-hoarse exhortations from Howard. Much like her facial expressions while performing, She has an impossibly elastic voice that would shred any mortal’s vocal chords into strands.
By virtue of that same versatility, the band slowed down and waltzed along for tender moments while Howard crooned and delivered songs that gently swaddle you without simply existing as boring slow-dance-fare. The feel-good soul of “This Feeling” is a perfectly tailored late night campfire hymnal for the last night of camp. “You Ain’t Alone”, for which Howard retired her guitar so that she could devote mind and body to her vocal delivery, would make Aretha Franklin proud (I looked at my notepad this morning and saw that during this song from their first album I underlined the shit out of a scribbled note: “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman”). One moment she was caterwauling over power chords, the next serenading the crowd with a vintage Motown cadence that is simultaneously coarse and gentle.
After playing “Future People”, the fourth song of the set, Howard came semi bashfully to the mic—a weird transformation from the howling woman we had seen moments prior—to say “Thank you.” And then “I’m not sure if you say thank you after every song, but I mean it.” Sure, that is Southern Hospitality and courtesy for you, but this is also a person that clearly pays no mind to boundaries or expectations, but means what she does, because that is the most important thing you can do when you express yourself. Brittany Howard passionately means what she is singing, and right now, she is on fire.
Catch the whole session on Monday April 27 on KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic”, and check out Alabama Shakes’ new record right here.