O2 Academy, 04/09/12
They’re one of the fastest-rising bands in the UK at the moment, and have a unique sound, as well as a fabulous new album. Despite the Tuesday night date, it was clearly appealing enough to a thousand Oxonians who ventured down to the O2 Academy on the 4th September. Tickets sold out several weeks prior to the gig, and it was quickly obvious that the average age was probably higher than in many other music shows – The Shakes’ sounds obviously an appeal for all ages.
Warm-up band Palma Violets started the proceedings, displaying a short set of some of their songs from various EPs and releases. Violet lights danced across the venue, and strobe lighting was introduced towards the end, to a great party effect. A favourite was Best of Friends, although all of their indie-rock songs excited the crowd ahead of the main show.
Half an hour later, Alabama Shakes entered onto the stage. The setup of the band could only be described as ‘different’, and having not seen any pictures of the group beforehand, I was surprised and overjoyed to see such refreshingly individual musicians playing together. Lead singer Brittany Howard is an incredible character and having introduced herself launched straight into the first song of the night, Hold On.
The track was first released in the UK in February, identified as the lead single for the album Boys & Girls, which was released in April. The religious lyrics reflect Brittany Howard’s faith, as she reminds herself that she has a lot to do in life, and that someone up above is telling her to wait it out until she can get up to heaven – possibly she is relating to a family member. Whatever the meaning of the lyrics, the song is an excellent one. The buzzing background is reminiscent of The Black Keys, and the solitary plucking of guitar strings keeps a constant tune throughout the track. The cymbal alters the rhythm, returning to a standard beat after each chorus. It’s an exquisite piece of music, especially to launch into as an expectant crowd looks on.
Suddenly we find ourselves in the unusual position of having completely warmed to the night’s music after just a single song – something that doesn’t happen very often.
Guitarist Heath Fogg initiates the next piece of music with a guitar riff, and Brittany’s totally unique voice reverberates around the room. The song is Hang Loose and is typical of the group’s style. Brittany sings passionately, and many of the crowd, including me, stare in fascination as she plays an intricate guitar solo and sings too. From the start she is an inspiration, and steals the show until, after the third song, she introduces her band.
The Shakes are made up of four band members in the studio, all of whom joined in 2009. Brittany Howard and Zack Cockrell started the band and were soon joined by guitarist Heath Fogg and drummer Steve Johnson. After a short period named ‘The Shakes’, the band soon changed it to ‘Alabama Shakes’ to differentiate themselves from other bands. After the release of an EP in September 2011, the band went from virtual obscurity to playing in large venues in America. In November they signed to the Rough Trade label, and their album was released in April of this year. Touring member Ben Tanner, on keyboards, joins the band for this performance.
Several songs follow, with You Ain’t Alone sticking in the memory. The hard-hitting, sad lyrics don’t restrict Brittany and her band to a slow beat, as several times emotion explodes from her voice. Her enthusiasm is infectious, and soon even the most stubborn of non-movers find themselves tapping a foot or moving the shoulders a little.
Several more songs follow and Alabama Shakes stay rigid in their stage positions as they deliver sounds which aren’t disappointing live. The set list is good, and a mix of album tracks with a few new tunes make for a great atmosphere.
The album title track, Boys and Girls gets Brittany singing about an important friend, which is intelligent song writing, since she can write passionately about it while everyone can still relate to it. I Ain’t The Same is probably my personal favourite from the night, with easily decipherable lyrics and drumming which matches Brittany’s voice – as well as criminal guitar riffs sneaked in where they probably shouldn’t be able to fit.
It’s over before anyone knows it, and the crowd wills the band for an encore. They oblige, and Brittany sings an appropriate and gratifying song aimed at the crowd, who can’t get enough of it. Her stage presence is electrifying and encouraging. It feels as if a bond has been made between us – a completely new feeling, since who can do such a thing in such a short space of time?
And so the band leave the stage to rapturous applause and whistles, and I leave the venue with a distinct sense of accomplishment, almost as if I’ve done something that I needed to do, despite not knowing that it was going to be such an experience.
Alabama Shakes, and Brittany Howard in particular, have an immense passion towards their music, and will keep moving from strength to strength. I can’t recommend going to see them enough, because you won’t be disappointed – as you so often are. The band has been compared to others such as The Black Keys, but with all confidence I can say that they are like no other band. And if you can’t make it to a gig, just give them a listen, it’ll be well worth your time.