“This is our last night in the UK. We’re going to make it count,” begins Alabama Shakes’ singer Brittany Howard. Moments later, she’s singing about being homesick with such heart-wrenching passion that you’d never notice any apparent contradiction.
It’s been an emotional journey for the former postal worker since 2012, when her band started amassing celebrity fans – from Robert Plant to Barack Obama – and sold a million copies of their debut, Boys and Girls, in the US. With Howard’s big lungs channelling Otis Redding and especially Janis Joplin, that album cast them as shamelessly but eerily good garage soulsters, everything about them so painstakingly late 1960s that you half expect them to namecheck Richard Nixon.
New album Sound and Color finds them shifting into a funkier, postmodern retro soul sound, the nine-piece band (including three “background singers”) occasionally reminiscent of the Black Keys with a sprinkle of David Bowie’s “plastic soul” period. The Shakes may be studied, but they don’t lack heart.
Indeed, in this era of highly styled pop stars, there’s something inspirational about the sight of a bespectacled, short-haired, mixed-race American woman belting it out from deep within.
In Future People, Howard adopts an eerie falsetto to sing about meeting spirit guides, a song perhaps inspired by her sister’s death in childhood. The likes of Joe, Over My Head and Be Mine are outstanding, licks-laden, emotion-soaked soul showstoppers.
Howard is also an adorable character. Fans affectionately mimic her trademark whoops and hollers. When she introduces a song about a man who couldn’t keep out of jail, someone yells and she shrieks, “It’s you!” When the would-be jailbird tells her his name is Eric, she dedicates the song to Eric. “How was that?” she asks him at the end. “Whooo. I think Eric just passed out.”
• Alabama Shakes play at Glastonbury and T in the Park.