Alabama Shakes doesn't like the "retro soul" label that often is attached to their brand of music. But, if their raucous set at Continental Club on Friday night is any indication, they should embrace it because they certainly owned it.
"Y'all gon' be alright," singer Brittany Howard told the packed midtown crowd about halfway through a rather abbreviated set of short, powerful songs. Her world-weary howl owes as much to Janis Joplin as it does to Otis Redding, but before seeing the Shakes, I was skeptical that Howard and her young band could live up to all the underground hype surrounding them. By the time the set was over, I was convinced.
While they may be young, Alabama Shakes has a backbeat that is beyond their years. Hailing from Athens, Alabama, less than 50 miles from where Redding, Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett turned out some of the most beautifully nasty and memorable songs of all time, the members of the Shakes seem to have that deep, gritty funk encoded into their DNA.
Much like the music of Stax, the Shakes' set was crammed full of brief songs that held down a thick groove for the transcendant Howard, who roared through the night delivering a "remember when" performance as in, "Remember when we saw her in that club with like 100 people?"
As great as Howard may be, her band of college age suburbanite-looking white kids laid down a foundation worthy of the old-school comparisons.
Co-founders Heath Fogg (guitar) and Zac Cockrell (bass) along with Steve Johnson (drums) and a keyboardist only identified by Howard as "Styrofoam Jones" obviously did their homework -- hell, Cockrell looked like a cross between Stax bassist Duck Dunn (sans pipe) and Zack Galifianakis -- but there was a rock and roll energy to their playing reminiscent of the punk they grew up on -- think Black Joe Lewis and the Honey Bears minus the horn section and with a dash of emo angst.
But, the clear star of the show was Howard, a surprisingly capable guitar player whose voice could tear the roof off of any venue. Much like Joplin, Howard can plain wail, and isn't afraid to put that skill on display often. As the door man said after I wondered out loud about the brevity of the barely hour-long set, "She can't sing like that every night for two hours."
When it was time for a ballad, Howard dropped into a slow burn before a crescendo of blistering vocals singing "I hope you really love me" to the audience with a directness and swagger that seemed as heartfelt as it did slyly sarcastic.
I wish Howard had interacted more with the audience. The Shakes had finished nearly half the set before she spoke directly to the crowd, which, given her personality as a performer, seemed out of place. "Hope we get to know each other tonight," she told the rapt crowd just a few songs before she said, "Goodnight, Houston" walking off abruptly a few seconds before the house music came over the speakers.
It's not surprising that a band who has gone from nowhere to a record deal with ATCO and prominent placement of their song "You Ain't Alone" in a holiday jewelry commercial might be a tad lacking in material, but I couldn't help thinking it would have been a joy to hear them drop in a well-known cover or two to keep the crowd rocking a little longer.
If leaving them wanting more was the objective, however, mission accomplished.
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Personal Bias: I grew up listening to and loving Atlantic rhythm and blues, Otis Redding in particular.
The Crowd: Surprisingly, buttoned-down brosephs and club-attired ladies with a sprinkling of hipsters.
Overheard in the Crowd: "Oh, my God, call me," one moderately drunk club girl said to the guitarist as he walked onstage to tune.
Random Notebook Dump: It was too crowded to walk through the crowd towards the door for better listening, so I escaped out the back and through Big Top which was filled with hipsters dancing hard to '60s funk and r&b. Weird.