Just a few years ago, Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes was working for the post office. Since then, the Shakes have become a surprise success, selling nearly half a million copies of their debut album — and Howard has a new job. On Sunday, Howard delivered a first-class message to the sold-out audience.
It was a tale of heartbreak, romance and faith. These are themes common in rock and soul, but rarely have these topics been sung with a voice as powerful as Howard’s. That was particularly evident on the hit “Hold On,” which came only three songs into the set. Howard closed her eyes, opened her wide mouth and let the song take her away, and the audience with her. It was mesmerizing.
The real showstopper, though, was a few songs later on blues burner “Be Mine.” It was the only song in the main set where Howard put down the guitar. When she warned another woman in the song to not “f” with her, it was as powerful and chilling as an opera aria, and showed why Howard has often been compared to Janis Joplin.
The Shakes performed for just over and hour, and it was a tight set, without the extended jams typical of Southern rock bands. There was no video wizardry or added production tricks. It was all voice, band and song, and though the band was solid throughout, the spotlight was always on Howard.
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She said very little to the audience, and toward the end of the concert even apologized for not talking. “I guess that’s why we write songs,” she said.
Her thick Southern accent was populated with “y’alls.”
“Looks like there are a lot of y’all out there,” she said. “I appreciate that.” She seemed sincere, as if the Brittany Howard who was onstage was the same one you would have met at your mailbox.
On “Heartbreaker,” Howard even called up blues great Howlin’ Wolf. “I’m laying on this killing floor,” she sang. With a lesser singer, it might have felt like pandering to summon such a legend.
But with Brittany Howard — one of the brightest talents in music today — it felt right.
Charles R. Cross: firstname.lastname@example.org or www.charlesrcross.com