With three Grammy nominations, a performance with Mavis Staples, and appearances on SNL and at festivals, Alabama Shakes recorded an impressive 2013 for any band, let alone one with only one album to their name.
The soul-infused southern rock group began 2014 with work on a follow-up to Boys & Girls, but are now taking a short break from the studio with a tour that kicked off last Friday night with a sold-out two-night stand at Washington D.C.’s 9:30 Club — a favorite venue of the Alabama band.
Opening act Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires, also hailing from The Yellowhammer State, added a taste of punk and a dose of sweat to the bluesy night. Their gritty, dive-y M.O. is built upon a genuine southern rock foundation, and they captured the attention of the majority of the Shakes’ fans streaming in. With their second album due out on Sub Pop in May, Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires may be worth a slot on one’s bands-to-watch list.
Without introduction, the Shakes launched into their new cut, “I Don’t Wanna Fight No More,” a well-received potential radio release. Two other new tracks sounded more deliberate, but didn’t stray too far from their wheelhouse. While their debut record was recorded live in the studio, their sophomore album appears to be one that will experiment a bit while offering a sound that is more focused and polished.
The Shakes beat the crowd into delighted submission early in the night with their best-known tracks; “Hang Loose,” “Hold On,” and “Always Alright” were played back-to-back-to-back, possibly explaining the slight mid-set lull. It’s hard not to be cognizant of the fact that there is nothing particularly ground-breaking or sensational about this band, with the exception of lead singer Brittany Howard‘s emotive vocals. They’re just a really, really good soulful, roots-rock band.
To achieve that, one can’t overlook the solid work of Heath Fogg (guitar), Zac Cockrell (bass), Ben Tanner (keyboards) and Steve Johnson (drums). Their fluidity in tracking vocalized sentiments that range from bellowing demands to tender croons is commendable. Yet, while they were given fleeting moments to shine, Howard’s presence was wonderfully blinding.
Howard’s disarming authenticity shows the grit of Janis Joplin and soul of Otis Redding. Throughout the night, she never lost her intensity, but she did turn up the charm for an encore: introducing a new song that rightfully accentuated Johnson’s skill, powering through a raw blues number and finally capping off the night with “You Ain’t Alone.” By that point, the crowd couldn’t resist singing along on the refrain.
For fervent fans — and there were a lot of them — the night’s performance did not disappoint; Howard’s unpretentious, face-contorting, soul-baring vocals were familiar, but no less captivating. And for those testing the Shakes’ waters, it would have been difficult to leave without believing that the band’s acclaimed live talent is much more than hype.