Janis Joplin at Monterey Pop. The Beatles on a London rooftop. Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. The Who at Leeds. Queen at Live Aid. If you care about sound in any way, you know of these. All iconic, unrepeatable performances for the ages. And yesterday on day two of the Hard Rock Calling music festival in London, we’re convinced we witnessed another. That’s when Alabama Shakes took the stage, and also their place as a major force in contemporary music.
Let’s start by being brutally honest with you for a moment: Prior to yesterday, we had totally missed out on the group. Sure, we’d heard their name bounced around a lot, and we seem to remember they performed during some awards show or another (Grammys?). But we just weren’t listening. It was through no fault of their own. But the reason why is extremely important if you happen to be a 25 year old male (which we are).
It was because our dad had recommended them to us.
Granted, we have our father to thank for bringing us Grace Potter, Fiona Apple, Alanis Morissette, the Cure, Talking Heads, the Beach Boys‘ Pet Sounds…oh, and life. So when he told us to keep an eye out for this band (presumably) from Alabama, we should have anxiously taken note.
But…he’s our dad, you know? Like most fatherly words of wisdom, we ignore them until the day comes when life gives you a smack, forcing you to see how awesomely truthful and accurate those words are. We were about to get smacked.
Our next clue should have been the look on the faces of our Hard Rock hosts when the band arrived backstage. We have personally seen these same folks in a tent containing Paul McCartney chatting to Paul Simon, and they never batted an eye. Hell, they were about to have Bruce Springsteen headline in just a few hours! Nope, not phased in the slightest. But suddenly these professional rock scholars -who work with legends on a regular basis- were desperate to get a quick photo with Alabama Shakes front-woman Brittany Howard and drummer Steve Johnson. Interesting.
Even then, we weren’t moved to see what all the fuss was about, and felt no pressing need to catch the start of their set. There’s lots going on at a music festival, and we’re working professionals, blah blah blah. We were stupid. But suddenly this SOUND draws us out of the press tent and towards the stage. It was Alabama Shakes tearing the guts out of “Be Mine.”
And it was like seeing a ghost -a gorgeous ghost of all the real and raw music we assumed had died out. But there it was in the form of the 24-year-old Howard, pounding her foot like Janis Joplin in her prime, screaming, shrieking, pleading, “Be my baby” over and over. It looked almost painful. It wasn’t pretty, but it was beautiful.
Despite their consummate showmanship, you could tell that this ain’t an act. The band themselves are fairly no frills in the wardrobe and theatrics department. Steve Johnson wears a bright orange Thin Lizzy t-shirt, and bass player Zac Cockrell dons overalls and a trucker cap. “We’re pretty low maintenance,” Brittany told us before the show “We just need the essentials, like a shower and a real toilet.” A modest black dress embroidered with sparkles served as her one nod toward diva-tude. That, and her incredibly soulful voice. There is no festival site big enough for it.
After taking us to church on the gospel-y number “I Found You,” she straps on a teal Gibson SG and takes off for “I Ain’t The Same.” And the girl can shred. Like a boss. The result almost makes us angry. “Oh hell no,” we think. “You can’t possibly sing on par with Aretha and play guitar like THAT. You have to pick one, otherwise you’re just being greedy with the talent gods.” But she can. And she did. The way she alternates between gentle spirituals and barnstorming rock is a sight (and sound) to behold. “We’re not afraid to play a slow song at a festival,” she tells us. “Most bands shy away from that, but I don’t. We don’t care.”
The band follow it up with “Hold On,”and Howard attacks the vocals with everything she has, jerking her body like a soul possessed. Maybe it is, for all we know. “My first true love is rock ‘n’ roll,” she says from the stage. “And I get excited every day and night that I get to play.” She teased the crowd with false endings, holding on until she had milked the melody for every last ounce of emotion.
For the first time in our concert career, we get choked up. We’ve been lucky enough to see some legendary musicians in our time, but this was different. It was like something new was happening right in front of you. We’d never seen a star born right before our eyes, but we’re pretty sure this was it. It was special.
Headliner Springsteen could have brought out Paul McCartney (he didn’t) AND Paul Simon, but it wouldn’t have mattered. The day belonged to Alabama Shakes alone. They stole the show and never gave it back. We predict that we will be talking about this set for many years to come.
Readers, we beg you to believe us. There is no record company or PR firm over our shoulder. This is not a pathetic attempt to drum up buzz. These guys are the real deal. Act accordingly.
And remember that sometimes father really does know best.
[Photo: Getty Images]