I had listened to Alabama Shakes twice before seeing them perform at La Cigale last weekend. Both times were while I was living in my home state of North Carolina, which is about a three-hour drive from the band’s hometown of Athens, Alabama. Being born and raised in the rural Southeast, I was aware – and admittedly proud – of the international hype surrounding these seemingly small-town heroes. Their sound is obviously a modern and booming synthesis of my region’s profuse subgenres. Maybe due to a slight feeling of southern territoriality though (Lynard Skynard’s “Sweet Home Alabama” is still an air guitar favorite while hanging out the back of my dad’s pickup), I was not instantly compelled to embrace another wave of the “Southern rock revival” craze. Kings of Leon were a huge disappointment, after all…
Cut from Dixie to Paris. I find myself at the Friday night set of Festival Les Inrocks, headlined by Alabama Shakes. Between the alt-folk of Wild Belle, the charlatan rockabilly twist of Willy Moon, and the retro soul of Michael Kiwanuka (I didn’t make it in time to see The Bots), the four-piece rock-n-roll act seamlessly joined the night’s apparent Americana theme. However, I never expected the roaring and unapologetic climax that Alabama Shakes brought to the stage. Strumming their guitars in melodic unison while bathed in blue light, the band opened their set with a fervent prelude that hinted a blessing of “grace” before Sunday afternoon lunch: “…well when Jesus comes and saves me to his kingdom, (lead singer Brittany Howard now squinting sideways at the crowd) I’ll take all you sons of bitches when I go…” They proceeded to dismantle the venue, as if it were only natural.
The lights came up as they ripped into the opening measures of their hit “Hang Loose.” If it hadn’t already, Howard’s vehement wail commanded the crowd’s attention and engagement; for the first time that evening, the sideline chatter ceased as the room rocked. One EP and one album under their belts, the group played a mix of their acclaimed debut “Boys & Girls.” Their delivery was surprisingly relaxed and well choreographed for such a seemingly young group (boys and girls, indeed).
This sound was best embodied in, if not enhanced by, Brittany’s lead performance. Although the dudes were rather stiff, Brittany was dressed up in polka dots, ankle booties, horn-rimmed glasses, and barrettes. Her guitar shredding and spontaneous head banging were anything but expected based upon appearance. When she wasn’t crooning in a backwards stretch, she had her finger pointed directly at you (yes, you), while telling you how it was going to be, bitch. All I could think when the lights went down on such a spitfire performance was why, for all things sacred, hadn’t they been on my radar from the beginning?
This is partially a rhetorical question, but I have at least somewhat of a response: the album does not wholly capture the dynamism of Brittany’s voice. It may be a high quality and well produced recording that leads us to compare her to the likes of Aretha and Otis, but it hardly communicates the depth of her vocal force. Also, I’m not initially keen on the general Southern rock sound (I may have been belting Lynard Skynard out my dad’s pickup, but I always preferred Queen). Even still, their apparent ability to incarnate a spectrum of genres across temporalities is as appealing as it is promising for their evolution.
In any case, it might surprise you to learn that the thunderous evening at La Cigale ended with “BOOs” from the crowd. Their cries were hardly aimed at Alabama Shakes though; they were instead meant for some higher authority that had denied a coveted encore. I joined the protest, but eventually settled on buying into this new “Southern rock revival” sound.