WORDS & PHOTO / ANDREW MCCLAIN
This weekend’s Alabama Shakes concert at the Arkansas Music Pavilion saw a festival-sized turnout for the Grammy-nominated Southern rock group.
The Athens, Alabama group has shot to prominence in the past two years, being nominated for three Grammys and appearing on Saturday Night Live. Their success represents an insurgent faction of roots-oriented rock music that has gained visibility in the world of pop music. Whatever we were calling “adult contemporary” or “soft rock” – you know, that music that sits safely outside the Top 40 charts, right in front of the register at Starbucks – has gained vitality from Alabama Shakes and their ability to fill an amphitheatre with people who want to see them play live.
Or maybe Alabama Shakes is the exception, rather than the rule. At any rate, they play a nearly-universally enjoyable fusion of soul and rock n’ roll, and it’s undeniably real.
Of course, the main feature of Alabama Shakes is frontwoman Brittany Howard, whose powerful voice recalls (and rivals) influences like Janis Joplin and Joe Cocker, making the AMP a very appropriate venue for the kind of soul-bleeding-into-rock that was heard at Woodstock from Janis and Joe.
Their music exists in that peculiar area where you can play their CD on low volume in your car or place of business and have it be pleasant and inoffensive, or you can go see them at an amphitheatre and be radically confronted by the intensity coming from the stage, and you can’t really say that about Norah Jones (I’ve never actually seen Norah rock an amphitheatre, so I could be wrong).
Howard’s strong personality contributes to the band’s social mobility – while their sound might not be confrontational, Howard’s strong Southern accent and penchant for slightly crass stage banter makes for a colorful performance. Always playful, Howard began a soulful talk-down during the bridge of an encore song, saying “This is the bridge. I usually try to find something interesting to talk about. But tonight, all I wanna know about is you. I wanna know how you feel. I wanna know if you feel the same way -” and launching back into the song with the audience roaring and completely locked into her energy. And that’s how an amphitheatre show should go.