Alabama Shakes at Cabooze Outdoor Plaza, 7/28/13
Cabooze Outdoor Plaza, Minneapolis
Sunday, July 28, 2013
As the Alabama Shakes unfurled the steady, elliptical riff of their hit "Hold On," the sun set behind the crowd at the Cabooze Outdoor Plaza Sunday night, and it briefly felt as if the whole world was in sync. The sky was awash with shades of pink and orange, the stage lights cast the band in bright red, and the whole crowd seemed to sway in unison, the majority of them singing along to the song. Such is the effect the Athens quartet can have on its fans.
Of course, such things are fleeting, even with a band like the Alabama Shakes, who almost certainly are at their best when playing in person, rather than merely on record. For most the rest of their show last night, it was singer Brittany Howard who provided most of the fireworks, and at times, that proved a bit of a problem. As gifted as she may be, she alone couldn't make the world stop turning.
Howard is without a doubt the center of this band -- words like "heart" and "soul" seem unusually appropriate in her case -- and as a performer her energy never seems to sag. For sure, it never did at the Cabooze. Hers is a voice that has less to do with range than it does with delivery, more to do with the passion of her voice than with perfect pitch or even versatility -- although, with that said, it can move at once from a sugary drawl to a foot-stomping, full-throated shout. She sings with her entire body, and the words course through her.
Here in the Midwest, this kind of music sometimes get referred to as "meat and potatoes" -- hearty, old-school music, music that's simple and recognizable, maybe even comforting. Certainly, there's nothing particularly groundbreaking about the Alabama Shakes. And yet this band is wholly Southern, and much of that, too, is down to Howard (and not just because of that large tattoo of Alabama on her right bicep). The emotional heft of what Howard had to say wasn't only in the way she said it -- although, really, without that voice, how could she sell it so well? -- but also in the simplicity of their truths.
Right from the beginning of the night, that tone was set: These were songs about "holding on" and "hanging loose," about confused 20-somethings trying to figure out how to be adults, trying to figure out why the world is unfair, and just plain trying to get by. Howard's songs are a matter of wisdom learned, not imparted, of mistakes and regrets that your parents could warn you about but that you'll just have to experience for yourself. They're universal truths, yes, but something in their sensibility is inherently Southern. "How was I supposed to know?" she asked on "Heartbreaker." "Mama couldn't tell me."
It's curious, then, that the Shakes' songs don't pack a heavier emotional punch, at least on record. Sure, the singles in particular are catchy, but they don't haunt you, or force you to come back to them, the way that you might expect. In person, of course, it's a different matter; Howard's presence is too strong not to be pulled in by, and the band is capable of rocking much harder. Which might be the issue right there: The rest of the band spends too much time, well, just keeping time.
"Hold On," which had seemed to bring all the stars into alignment earlier in the evening, worked so well because of its arrangement. At first, it was that loping bassline, before the guitar and then the keys entered the equation. Howard's voice simply pulled it all together, rather than having to prop it all up. Later in the night, there were some similar moments -- in particular, "I Ain't the Same," which once again was built around birthday boy Zac Cockrell's bass -- and in the end some real out-and-out rockers, starting with set closer "You Ain't Alone" and continuing through the encore. One of the real highlights, in fact, was the down-and-dirty boogie of "Worryin' Blues," but few others touched on that same territory.
Still, Howard was able to command the stage as she pleased, occasionally ripping off a guitar solo that could be downright surprising, for the simple fact that you'd almost forgotten she was still playing it. But she was perhaps at her best, at least on the slower numbers, when she dropped the guitar altogether and paced the stage. On a song like "Be Mine," she snapped her fingers, pointed, swayed, and swung her head back, as though her words were demons that needed exorcising, or at least a testimonial that needed to be given.
But it was a new song, itself another slow, gospel-tinged dirge, that may have had the most interesting revelations -- and maybe even a window toward the future. In it, Howard seemed to sum up much of what's happened in her and the Shakes' lives over the past year, since their band first got a buzz in cities like Minneapolis. She questioned "why (you) choose to keep me close," a contrast of sorts to, say, "Heat Lightning," which almost felt like a love letter to the audience. And the refrain drove home the point: "I still ain't got what I want," Howard lamented, over and over again.
Have fame and success -- however modest they may still be for the Shakes -- proved less than satisfying? Perhaps. Could we all expect something more from them? Perhaps that, as well. Or maybe it's just that Howard always wants to give something more. On that, there can be little doubt. There may even be cause for hope.
Critic's Bias: A friend once suggested that "Alabama Shakes" sounds like an antiquated term for a venereal disease. If only! (And I mean that in the nicest possible way.)
The Crowd: On the young-ish side -- meaning closer to 30 than 20 -- with a healthy dose of parents in the mix.
Overheard in the Crowd: (The sounds of chugging beers.)
Random Notebook Dump: Locals Eleganza were the sole openers last night. In my laziness, I showed up just as they were wrapping up their set. Oops.
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