Live review: Alabama Shakes

Bootlegs, News - Published: 4 May 2012

Brittany Howard and her troop stop off in Paris to play a sold out show at La Fléche D’or.

If you see someone whistling in the rain, jumping in puddles and generally walking with a summery glow this weekend, chances are they were at La Fléche D’or on Wednesday. The buzz preceding Alabama Shakes European arrival was deafening,  a barnstorming show at SXSW tends to do that to a band, luckily this time there’s a group with the clout to carry the expectation on their shoulders.

Less than a week earlier Nouveau Casino, just down the road, played host to The Daptone label’s tenth anniversary party. The Brooklyn-based label is celebrated across the board for making stars out of industry cast offs and reclaiming a Motown sound so cruelly stolen by wedding DJ’s and student night clubs.  Alabama Shakes’ own brand of 70′s rockabilly soul would fit comfortably on their roster, alongside the likes of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Lee Fields and Charles Bradley. Not unlike them Alabama shakes have humble beginnings, this time last year lead singer Brittany Howard was a postal worker in Athens, Alabama.

Many a column inch this year will be filled adjectives describing the raw pain and joy with which Brittany Howard sings. It’s faultless, alarming, engaging and not without substance. The singer began writing songs with her older sister, who died of a brain tumor in 1998, at the age of four, Howard told Rolling Stone: “After she passed away, I didn’t have anybody to do that with, but I found her guitar, started playing and never really stopped.”

“After she passed away, I didn’t have anybody to do that with, but I found her guitar, started playing and never really stopped.”

Years of covering Led Zeppelin, Oits Redding and James Brown in the deep south has given the band an almost effortless stage presence, at its heart is their ability to seem approachable and vulnerable whilst delivering a devastating sound which catches you off-guard. Introducing the title track from their debut album ‘Boys & Girls’, Howard reveals the song was written about a neighbour and childhood friend who she grew up with and who was cruelly separated from her once they reached their teenage years. There’s real hurt here, it’s not something that’s easily faked or replicated.

It’s not all pain and heartache though, the band know how to have fun. The swamp rock vibes of ‘Heavy Chevy’ and ‘Mama’ could easily have been plucked straight from a Jerry Lee Lewis set list and that’s how the show suitably ends, with cheering, hollering, and dancing.

This, their first world tour, is  a precious time for a group  of friends who clearly still enjoy playing and making music with each other. Many an up-and-coming band has fallen at this first hurdle but with Alabama Shakes you get the impression they won’t let that happen. Rumour has it the group will be back in town to play La Cigale for Festival Les Inrocks towards the end of the year – that will be one show you don’t want to miss.