I think Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes has an out-of-body experience every time she sings. There’s a vacant look in her eye and a curl to her lip that sends shivers right through the speakers.
Her powerful voice, at times gritty and at times velvet soft, leapt from one emotional extreme to the next on Thursday night (Sept. 27) in Nashville, while the steady four-piece rhythm section behind her laid down a dynamic foundation to work from.
It was their first time headlining Live on the Green, and the powers-that-be expected around 10,000 fans to fill Legislative Plaza. I haven’t seen an official count yet, but it was definitely the biggest crowd I’ve experienced at the free concert series. Third Avenue, adjacent to the plaza, was even closed down to allow for the overflow.
But despite their red-hot status, when the unassuming group took the stage, there was no flash or ego following them. Just hard-driving soul and rock ‘n’ roll reminiscent of the early Stax Records sound, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and a hint of Janis Joplin.
I was especially pleased when the band immediately launched into two of their biggest songs, “Hang Loose” and their breakout hit “Hold On.” Not many bands will give a crowd what they came for right up front and trust that everyone will hang around. Not surprisingly, everyone did.
The Shakes continued on laying a silky beat and worked through their debut album, Boys and Girls, serving up “I Found You,” “You Ain’t Alone” and “Be Mine,” which was a standout as Howard let go of her guitar and stalked the entire stage, arms flailing in passion. They performed that song two weeks earlier at the Ryman Auditorium during the Americana Honors and Awards show, where they deservedly won the best new emerging artist trophy.
The young musicians have plenty of experience performing on outdoor stages and at large festivals — Bonnaroo, Red Rocks, Newport Folk Festival and more — but their sound seems tailor-made for a midsized club with some room for groovin’. I can’t wait to catch that show, but until then feast your eyes and ears on their video for “Hold On.”