Tuesday, March 5, 2013
The Fox Theater, Oakland
Better than: Life before Brittany Howard.
The thing that's most notable about Brittany Howard is Brittany Howard.
When L.A. blog Aquarium Drunkard told the world about The Shakes in July of 2011, the band was no more than a humble Southern rock outfit; a quiet Facebook page boasted just a couple hundred hometown and regional fans (they picked up the "Alabama" later, either to amend the reference to alcoholic withdrawal or maybe just for SEO reasons). The few fuzzy photos that existed of The Shakes featured frontwoman Brittany Howard, decked out in floral prints, dangly earrings, square glasses, and with full command over a cherry-red Gibson SG. As rockers go, the band seemed a bit knobby and new, but utterly sincere. Aquarium's Justin Gage, a guy who commonly favors the old to the new, introduced the young band to the world as "the real -- the stuff that can't be faked."
Since then, apparently all the sold-out shows, commercially-licensed songs, and major record labels haven't sullied that feeling. Last night Howard spread her arms to the crowd in Oakland, rejoicing with them: "It was great getting to know y'all tonight. You make me feel so fucking real." The guys and gals at the Fox erupted -- as they did naughtily every time Howard dropped a tasty curse word -- acknowledging that, likewise, they felt pretty fucking real, too. Jeff Buckley would be proud.
Audiences often reflect the energy of the performers they've paid good money to see, and last night was an unforced example. With the rest of the band steadily (albeit boringly) in the pocket alongside her the whole time, Howard solely shaped the audience's engagement. She moved easily between energies and could reach every inch of the room with her charming sway and James Brown-worthy screech.
When she put down her guitar and busted out ballads like "Boys and Girls" and "You Ain't Alone," she melted hearts like Otis Redding. And the savory moments were sandwiched between lacerating, Americana-style shredders "Rise To The Sun," "Be Mine," or "Heavy Chevy," which had folks squirming along like, well, the way you'd squirm to Lynyrd Skynyrd, maybe. When she said "bullshit!" everyone went "woo!" -- when she took a guitar solo heads were bent in solidarity. Alabama Shakes have American rock completely nailed; from the squarest country diddling to the most raw and soulful yearning; blues, soul, classic, '60s, '70s, neo, retro, who-gives-a-fuck-anymore.
On "the real," though -- Gage described it, in the same post: "The real is an elusive chase and one that rarely comes pre-packaged all nice and spit-shined via a PR firm. As such, finding it makes it that much sweeter." In that spirit, the Shakes are to this day, kind of an odd bunch, in a sweet way. Howard is without a doubt the star, with charisma and charm far beyond her limited experience. She can push her hair back and strut around with possession, throw her guitar behind her back or shrug it off and glide around, and generally knows how to treat the crowd with grace and appreciation.
Heath Fogg is the good guitarist who never takes a solo (he did a nice wave after the encore though!). Zac Cockrell is the extremely chill bassist/very hairy band member. Ben Tanner manned the nondescript organ/keys, and Steve Johnson (who with his camo hat kind of looked like the guy from Zero Dark Thirty/Parks & Rec) is a drummer (also no solo). This isn't to sound unappreciative, though. It would be easy to exclude the band's other members, if only for a lack of antics, and with such a great performance under their belts that's just not fair. The solid backing band/shining star arrangement is a familiar, time-tested model, and as long as Brittany Howard isn't too tired up there, it seems to shake out brilliantly for everybody.
Goin' To The Party
Always Alright (Silver Linings Playbook OST)
I Found You
Rise To The Sun
Boys And Girls
On Your Way
You Ain't Alone
I Still Ain't Got What I Want
I Ain't The Same