Echo Beach was the perfect setting for the sold out Alabama Shakes Toronto concert. The 5000 deep crowd welcomed the band onstage for a 90-minute set, and the band brought the crowd blues rock at its best.
Having a dynamic frontman/frontwoman is increasingly rare but when a band has one, it’s priceless. Alabama Shakes (Brittany Howard, Zac Cockrell, Heath Fogg, Steve Johnson) definitely won the lottery when it comes to singer/guitarist Howard. It’s easy to become star struck by Howard’s talent and magnetism. There is an uninhabited raw quality to her performance style – and elasticity to her face – unleashed on stage, that makes her tremendous to watch and listen to.
Singing completely from their 2012 album Boys and Girls, with a few new songs from their upcoming album, Howard roared on track after track not afraid to lay claim on her man in “Be Mine” or evoke the pain of falling in love with the wrong one in “Heartbreaker.”
With her guitar, pretty dress, glasses and stockings she is a young lady with the hard-won wisdom of a woman 50 years her senior. Raw and regel.
When Howard sings, “You know those mother fuckers took it all,” you feel like you’re sitting at her kitchen table listening to all the down and dirty details of some love business gone wrong. And her stirring conviction on “Hold On” got the crowd singing along like it was an anthem. Howard has sung these songs time and time again but it’s as if she is singing and experiencing it all for the first time.
Like Billie Holiday, Adele and Amy Winehouse, Howard sings about love, desire and loss in a primal way that makes you think, “Girl, I’ve been there,” (“Boys & Girls”) or “I want to go there,” (“I Found You”). And like Janis Joplin she brings an urgent ferocious approach to each song paired with a similar ability to bring her voice down to a whisper and then suddenly shoot off into a wail. In the vein of the legendary soulful screamers, Joplin, Mavis Staples, Steven Tyler, the woman can scream and it sends chills down your arm every single time she does. Howard also sounds live exactly as she does on the album, which is indeed as exceptional as her skills on the guitar.
The one downfall of the show had nothing to do with the actual show but rather the silly crew in front of me who appeared to pay to attend the concert only to talk loudly and desperately try and manufacture requisite Tumblr moments – selfie pics in the moonlight and straight girl kisses straight girl while boyfriends make peace signs behind them – (Howard later called them out saying, “I can hear all of y’all’s conversation.” (And fed-up fans quickly chimed in telling the bunch to “Shut the fuck up!”).
Even without Howard’s vocals the band is fantastic and strong matching the force of their hurricane frontwoman, never being overshadowed. The one disappointment was that the amazing new songs the band played during the encore are not yet available. It would have been great for fans to be able to purchase an EP with a few of these new songs rather than be left singing it in our heads with no idea when it will be released.
All and all Howard would have been a star in the early blues era. She would have been a star in the late 60’s psychedelic rock scene. And she is a star now. Her timeless magic is real, rare and always relevant. “Be yourself…that’s the new way to be,” said Howard towards the end. And after watching her for nearly two hours – free of self-consciousness. Laying it all on the stage – you’re glad that she’s doing just that.