Alabama Shakes at Riverside Theater
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Somewhere in Alabama, the less optimistic friends and relatives of the four dudes in Alabama Shakes are holding their breath, waiting for the day when singer Brittany Howard tells her band she’s going solo. The Janis Joplin to their Big Brother And The Holding Company, Howard is virtually the entire show, and it’s her voice and charisma that sold out the Riverside Theater Friday night. For such a young band catapulted so quickly into prominence, the guitar/bass/drum/keyboard unit pulled off the retro rock/R&B shtick competently enough, but it was evident that these guys were holding on for dear life as Howard carried the night.
At the outset of the show, even Howard seemed a bit unsure of herself, but all it took was the ubiquitous “Hold On” as the third tune of the set to galvanize the audience and boost confidence onstage. From this point on the show was pure, celebratory fun. Howard’s command of her full vocal range is often breathtaking, and there’s no denying the power behind those pipes or the passion she brings to the performance. She’s got all the bluesy grit of Janis as well as a pristine clarity; her ability to access the full spectrum at will is unparalleled in contemporary rock. She was also the most impressive instrumentalist of the night, only occasionally taking a brief lead on guitar, but playing with a fiery energy that main guitarist Heath Fogg ought to have learned from by now.
Drummer Steve Johnson had his moments; he was a machine, showcasing impeccable precision though devoid of any original style, holding down the rudimentary rhythm section admirably. The rest of the band had zero stage presence, seeming glumly aware of their sidemen status in all but name. The songs themselves were similarly faceless and unoriginal; the fact that none of this detracted from a rousing good time is a testament to Howard’s ability to work a room. Predictably, a good portion of attendees got chatty during slower numbers like “Boys & Girls” and new song “Making Me Itch,” but otherwise, Howard had them eating out of her hand, howling with delight every time she dropped an F-bomb.
The encores of “I Ain’t The Same” and “Heat Lightning” displayed all of Howard’s star power in addition to her genuine humility and gratitude for the dizzying rise to fame. After playing everything from its lone album and then some, the band still left its fans wanting more; for some, that “more” was imagining what Howard could accomplish with a truly inspired and powerful band behind her.