March 5, 2013
Alabama Shakes: Riding the Wave
Sometimes you are sitting there minding your own business, doing your thing when a big wave comes along picks you up and drags you out to sea whether you are ready or not. This was my impression after seeing Alabama Shakes at the Fox Theater last night. AS is a talented group with a charismatic singer who does a fairly good Janis Joplin impression. However, I got the sense that they are not yet ready for the very large amount of acclaim that has already come their way after just one album. They are still finding their feet and yet the wave has already pulled them into the ocean. Now, they just need to learn to surf with several thousand people looking on each night at sold-out shows across the country.
AS at times sounds like Janis Joplin singing Marvin Gaye songs and at other times like Janis Joplin singing Bonnie Raitt or just like Janis Joplin. They are clearly fans of JJ (though no one can really match the once in a generation talent of JJ). Still, the band has a very fun Americana-roots sound that is reminiscent of many old school soul and R&B luminaries. It’s not difficult to understand where the enthusiasm for the band comes from. They sound fresh and familiar at the same time. They also have some really good musical chops. The songs are well-crafted and place singer Brittany Howard’s unique voice at the center of the music- which has resulted in many awards, three Grammy nominations, and slots at the largest music festivals including Bonnaroo, Isle of Wight, Outside Lands etc. It is no exaggeration to say that they have been on top of a large wave that grew very quickly.
Their performance last night at the Fox seemed oddly perfunctory as if they have been on the road for a bit too long and need a break. Still, it was quite a bit better than their studio recordings- which always gives me hope for a new band. I felt that I was hearing a lot of unrealized potential. Brittany does need to work on her stage delivery to better connect with her adoring fans. She has a big and warm voice but seemed almost nervous on stage. And though the band can jam, they largely stuck to the studio score rather too closely. Nevertheless, the show was quite a lot of fun and I will be happy to watch the band grow and will be looking for new albums in the future. But, as the cliché goes, only time will tell whether AS rises above the early adulation and rides the wave or whether they will get sucked under.
Opening for A-Shakes was Michael Kiwanuka, a British soul singer, who was limited to an acoustic set which made him sound more of a folk artist than a soul artist. Kiwanuka is another major rising star with plenty of acclaim having won the BBC Sound of 2012 award and having been nominated for the Mercury Prize. His acoustic set was a bit washed out by a crowd that was far more interested in waiting for AS than enjoying MK’s offerings. But he is definitely an artist to keep an eye on, like AS, he is going places fast and I hope that he gets there.