Alabama Shakes – review

Boston Arms, London

The woman shaking her corkscrew curls and bawling into the microphone doesn't much look like the music industry's usual idea of a star. Brittany Howard is, nonetheless, riding a thermal of acclaim so fast and so high it could be greased with helium. Bespectacled, and wearing a flowery dress, she looks more like a schoolteacher, or someone who might renew your driving licence.

In fact, before her band, Alabama Shakes, became feted by Adele, Bon Iver, Robert Plant, Jack White, David Byrne, Alex Turner and, er, Jamie Oliver, she used to deliver the post. Drummer Steve Johnson used to check for radiation leaks at the nuclear plant near Athens, Alabama, where the band formed. Howard, 22, still lives with her dad, a bail bondsman, at the end of a dirt track.

The fact that Howard is – defiantly, gloriously – her own woman is one of the many pleasures of seeing Alabama Shakes on their UK debut. Another is the way guitarists Howard and Heath Fogg swap solo duties. Another nice touch is the platter of fruit at their feet, from which furry bassist Zac Cockrell plucks a solitary grape at the end of their most vintage rock'n'roll workout, "Mama". For the encore, Howard will hurl bananas into the crowd. Before that, this five-strong southern rock'n'roll'n'rhythm'n'blues band will recall the White Stripes fronted by Cee Lo Green, or Led Zeppelin fronted by Beth Ditto, or, indeed, the Kings of Leon fronted by a bespectacled, guitar-toting Alabama ex-postwoman. Their latest celebrity scalp, Russell Crowe, is looking on.

Their set list is written on the back of a paper plate and previews the Shakes' debut album, Boys & Girls, due out in April. Every song sounds as though it's been assembled from the spare parts of old cover versions, caked in the patina of years and topped off with the cathartic chorus of Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness". Only one of them actually is a cover, though. The Shakes end the night with a tremendous romp through Led Zeppelin's "How Many More Times" and the riveting sight of a southern blueswoman aping Robert Plant aping a lot of old southern blueswomen.

Regrettably, none of Alabama Shakes' own songs are quite so sprawling or free-form. But all demonstrate a deep sympatico with the classics, cut through with first-hand feeling. Howard saves her own band from being merely a skilful genre exercise.

Setting a scene full of dancing and fighting, "Goin' to the Party" ends on a delicious, pregnant pause as the Shakes fuse it with the start of their most instantly memorable tune, "Hold On". "Bless my heart, bless my soul, I didn't think I'd make it to 22 years old," sings Howard, chewing the words like sticky toffee. "There must be someone up above saying 'Come on, Brittany, you got to come on up'." The song is about yearning, waiting and holding tight to self-belief, and pretty much sums up the band's autobiography thus far.

Quite a few of Alabama Shakes' songs feel equally up close and personal. Howard explains how the waltz-timed, soulful "Boy & Girls" was written about her childhood best friend (a boy), and how they were driven apart by others' preconceptions. The relative calm of "Hold On" is soon replaced by a pitching storm in which the other four musicians – keyboard player Ben Tanner completes the lineup – prove they are not just some session guys backing up a plainclothes diva. Most songs end with Howard wiping down her glasses. They fly off her face at the end of "On Your Way", so sweaty does she get.

During the last, valedictory song of the set, "Heat Lightning", she sings, almost conversationally, about putting mail in mailboxes, hoping something better would come one day. "I thank you with every cell in my body," Howard hollers at one point.

The Shakes spent 2011 going from anonymity to blogger interest to a tour with fellow southerners the Drive-By Truckers to a bidding war to live US TV, to these three instantly sold-out nights in London (a bigger UK tour has been announced for May). We might be in a room above a pub in Tufnell Park, rather than anywhere more spacious, but Alabama Shakes' progress seems virtually assured. A fortnight ago the Black Keys sold out three Alexandra Palaces, confirming the public mood for earthy, back-to-basics rock. Some theory-hungry music critics like Simon Reynolds, author of the 2011 book Retromania, take eloquent issue with our fetishisation of all things past. The thing is, this kind of old-time music – expertly played, felt at the cellular level – seems never to get old.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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