When writing about hot new bands, it’s easy to lapse into hyperbole. This is the best band on earth. She has the greatest voice I’ve ever heard. If you don’t love this group, you might as well throw yourself off a building.
I admit it’s easy and fun (and lucrative) to heap lavish praise upon your favorite acts. But the result of this unchecked vocabulary is the near canonization of every busker with a ukulele.
I don’t mean to imply that Alabama Shakes are buskers with ukuleles. What I mean is that, even though you see a bunch of reputable sources hailing them as the Second Coming, they’re really just a rock band. Nothing more.
They proved this at last night’s sold-out performance at New York’s Terminal 5. Sticking mostly tracks from their hit debut Boys & Girls, the group played the songs entirely as written. That’s not so bad, those songs are roundly excellent: “Hold On” is a modern soul-rock anthem, and the quirky, arpeggiated bluster of “Goin’ to the Party” is endlessly fascinating. But faithfully reproducing a studio recording on stage is not the mark of a great band—on the contrary, a great band can use their studio recordings as foundations and give the audience more than what they’ve already heard. The Shakes demonstrated that they are competent musicians and they played with the tight cohesion of a seasoned road band, but that’s all they were: well-rehearsed but unsurprising.
The reason people talk about them like they descended from the firmament in a golden chariot is because they’ve emerged at a time that is starved for purist rock and roll. The popular music market consists almost exclusively of glossy, big-budget EDM; the Shakes, on the other hand, sound like they were born during a jam in your living room. Like Jack White (for whom they served as an opening act back in the spring), they are a refreshing reminder that bare-bones rock music used to be a big thing, and can still be a thing if you’re persistent enough. But would they have made such monumental waves in the early ’60s landscape by which they’re inspired? Hard to tell, but it’s doubtful.
Here’s the part, though, where I talk about Brittany Howard. All of 23 years old, this capital-W woman boasts enough star power on stage to make up for her immobile backing band. The obvious comparison is Janis Joplin: tough, hardened far beyond her years, and commanding a husky belt soaked with booze and heartache. When she convulsed in wild-eyed torment—she used to be in a punk band—and shrieked homespun lyrics like “I still ain’t got what I want,” I thought. “Damn, she means it.” Her enormous stage presence and her dynamism established her as the charismatic foil to her band’s mechanical rigidity. In her case, the adulation from the music press is entirely deserved.
They brought their obligatory encore to a close with “Heavy Chevy,” a supercharged rockabilly romp. Yet as I left, I couldn’t help feeling underwhelmed. All of the rave reviews had built the Alabama Shakes into something they aren’t. Then again, only a year ago Brittany Howard worked in a post office, and with some more time, they might live up to the praise.
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