When Brittany Howard, erstwhile singer of the US garage-soul band Alabama Shakes, was a young child, someone slashed the tyres on the family’s car and left a goat’s head on the back seat. Who could have done such a thing? The question has troubled Howard all her life. She knows one thing for sure: it was someone in her native Athens, Alabama, who was unimpressed by the fact that Howard’s mother was white and her father black.
She relives the incident on a new song, Goat Head, and ponders the American south’s obsession with race on her forthcoming solo album, Jaime, an album the 30-year-old singer has been touring with a lavish, stylish eight-piece band ahead of its release on 20 September.
Two virtuoso keyboard players, two soloing guitarists (in addition to Howard herself), Alabama Shakes bassist Zac Cockrell, a pair of backing vocalists and a versatile new drummer provide a terrific approximation of a 60s soul revue band, albeit one that’s tarried a while in one of Amsterdam’s head shops: they bring the funk and the psych equally hard. Tonight, Howard is soon barefoot, stamping around the stage, gesticulating, pulling faces and wiping the sweat from her eyes; at one point she plays her electric guitar behind her head like another American great of mixed heritage, Jimi Hendrix.
With Alabama Shakes, one of the best new guitar bands to emerge from the US in the past decade, Howard made two acclaimed albums, winning four of the nine Grammys for which the Shakes were nominated, and playing for the Obamas at the White House. Alongside success, however, came a kind of burnout. In a recent interview in Q magazine, Howard describes not having the “bandwidth” to cope with the demands of being a known quantity. “I was born in a trailer park,” she added, by way of explanation, although her decision to relocate to remotest New Mexico underlines this charismatic performer’s appetite for offstage calm.
Outside the Shakes, Howard has explored more niche interests: an even more garage-punk side-project, Thunderbitch, in 2015, while in 2018 she teamed up with two female musician friends – one of them is now Howard’s romantic partner – to form the country-leaning three-way Bermuda Triangle.
Jaime is something else altogether, a solo album where Howard calls the shots (in contrast to the more democratic Alabama Shakes), where she channels D’Angelo, church organs and deeply personal themes. It’s a funk-rooted, magnificently played, dynamically recorded exploration of where Howard is now. Later, Lavinia Meijer, the album’s Amsterdam-based harpist, joins the band for Presence, a quieter but still elegiac song about love, where the wordless oohs and aahs of the backing vocalists say as much about its raptures as Howard’s words.
In the lyrics to Goat Head, Howard shrugs off all outside attempts to define her: black, brown, “this or that”, “one drop” or “three-fifths”. Over the course of an hour or so, she delivers a set of songs that, you suspect, comes closer than ever before to replicating her own extraordinary internal coordinates. Her music is a humid, emotional place where Prince and James Brown converge, where a heartfelt, sweat-dappled Sam and Dave cover – When Something Is Wrong With My Baby – emphasises the role love plays in her output, specifically, its succour and solidarity.
The personal pronouns matter here too. One particularly tender love song, Georgia, deals explicitly with being a young girl with a crush on another girl. “I just want Georgia to notice me,” coo two backing singers alongside Howard. Then there’s the album’s title: Jaime is the big sister who influenced Howard and died age 13 from a form of eye cancer, when Howard was nine.
Howard has other stories to tell: of how, after an upbringing in the church, her faith has taken some near-fatal blows. The unfairness of Jaime’s death was a catalyst for questioning, but religion’s harsher messaging had an impact too. A connection endures. On a song called He Loves Me, which comes early in the set, Howard is unequivocally upbeat. She doesn’t go to church any more, but God surely doesn’t mind her living her life, her way. “I know he still loves me when I’m smoking blunts,” she sings. “He doesn’t judge me.”
Last week in London, the band were dressed in red and black; but tonight, their all-white colour scheme combines with the old-church feel of the Paradiso – and Howard’s own evangelising stage presence – to amplify the impression that we’re being taken to church. 13th Century Metal finds Howard going totally pulpit, declaiming like a preacher: “We are all brothers and sisters!”
This is all largely unknown territory for listeners who have yet to hear the record. Only two tracks have come out thus far, and there are, pointedly, no Alabama Shakes songs to hold on to tonight. But Howard has the Paradiso rapt and whooping in short order as one of the album’s loveliest moments, the previously released Stay High, melts everyone’s reserve early on. Naturally, sentiments such as “I just want to stay high with you” play well in the city where cannabinoids have long been part of the fabric of life, even though Howard says elsewhere that it’s about positivity, not the other kind of high.
The video for the song stars a lip-synching Terry Crews, of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Expendables fame, coming home after work to his wife and young daughters, a tribute from Howard to her dad that has racked up more than 6m plays. There are covers of Prince’s late-career track Breakdown, and Revolution by the Beatles, the latter virtually unrecognisable at first, but raising a roar regardless.
In a set full of highlights, original and borrowed, it’s one of the quieter, more desolate songs whose truths play in the mind long after the Brittany Howard Revue has packed up. Short and Sweet is a forlorn lament that finds Howard accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, her voice spanning a whispered falsetto and a guttural husk, the tune itself alternating between timeless balladeering and an almost avant-garde use of pace and silence. “I just want the beginning,” she howls, of a love affair whose conclusion is unknowable. You can’t help but feel, though, that this new, solo Brittany Howard is a keeper.