Alabama Shakes @ Saltair 03.08

Posted March 13, 2013 in
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The Alabama Shakes w/ Michael Kiwanuka and Sam Doores & Riley Downing @ The Saltair 3.8.2013

Last Friday I went to see the Alabama Shakes at Saltair, a large warehouse-like venue artificially fogged, smelling of damp concrete and stale beer (which is surprisingly pleasant). I was completely unaware of the damage the Shakes would do to my “soul.”

First on the stage was the group Sam Doores & Riley Downing. Based out of Louisiana, I was quite befuddled by this up and coming group. A cross between George Jones, Old Crow Medicine Show and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, these five guys have potential to make it big in the alt-country world. Weeping, moaning lap steel over romping guitars really put me through a loop. I am reluctant-but-open lap steel slut—I'll get it wherever I can. Some people like to pour it on and take you out of the moment, but these guys know how to use it without over extending its welcome. Underneath the lap steel is uncut honky-tonk and outlaw country motifs—something your grandpa listened to when he took you fishing. Though I like their sound, after a few songs, my desire for country was fully satiated, so I watched a herd of hipsters ironically square dance on the top level. My attention was reigned back into the show by the song “No Mama Blues.” A bluesy four minute tune, it provided a change of pace, from andante to up beat walking speeds. These guys would undoubtedly be warmly welcomed at the Prairie Home Companion radio show. SD & RD closed out their set with a beautifully depressing piece about being on the road (It's apparently not on their 2012 album). At first I mistook it for a cover of the local-but-influential Band of Annuals’ “Don't Let Me Die.” My hopes were quickly dashed away about 45 seconds in, but the song is still pretty good. The band walked off stage and the next act quickly followed.

Michael Kiwanuka, a British soul/folk singer, has a minimalistic approach to music. Kiwanuka walked on stage with a guitar in hand and accompanied by a bass player. For how big this guy is in UK, I was surprised to see such a bare bones performance. Singing with a low, raspy voice, Kiwanuka's vocals sound by defacto emotional and vulnerable. Fans of Ben Harper, Otis Redding and Joshua James will love Kiwanuka. His performance was perfect for the outside weather: cold and rainy. It made me want to wrap myself in a blanket and drink a cup of coffee or whatever. After a few songs, I lost interest. Kiwanuka is an amazing performer and I appreciate his music, but it all felt like the same song. Songs like “Home Again” sound very similar to “I Won't Lie” and that's okay, I just needed a bit more variety. Kiwanuka walked off staged and the entire audience walked in line to grab a beer.

After a half hour or so, the Alabama Shakes walked on stage to rapturous applause. Considering that a year and a half ago this band was an opener and was only played on college radio, they've done well for themselves. I've been a fan for shy of a year and even though I love their album, I was expecting a canned performance, appealing to a broad audience, sticking only to their album and no jam seasons. I was wrong. The Alabama Shakes have one of the tightest rhythm sections I've seen in quite some time—without their quick stops and interplay, the vocals of Brittany Howard would not have a platform to launch from. Howard's stage presence and facial expressions are on par with the likes of Mick Jagger and Thom Yorke. Carrying a sea-foam green guitar and in a billowy floral print, Howard is wonderful, sublime force not to be reckoned with. Howard brings the lyrics to life through the animated expressions of agony, pain and melancholy. The lyrics, the pain, felt authentic, which swept me away. No longer was I surrounded by thousands of fans—Howard's performance made me feel like I was being to played to individually. I'd compare it to how people describe meeting Bill Clinton: he shakes your hand and says hello, then makes you feel like you're the only person in the world that matters. Their performance of “I Found You” was melodic and seemingly intimate, every dastardly couple was dancing in the audience and it made me feel sick. Just a bit too sweet and loving. Howard waled the lyrics into the mic, not missing a single note despite the range it demands. The band walked off stage and did an encore for the broken-hearted fools also there.

Reopening with “You Ain't Alone,” it was here that Howard's voice overpowered me. By the end of the song, I was actively weeping out of awe and pure sadness. If you haven't heard this song before, please stop reading for five minutes and listen to it... fucking soul crushing right? Red-eyed and catharticly empty, the Shakes continued to slowly rip my heart out with songs like “Boys and Girls” and “Heartbroken,” Devastating in every definition of the word, the Alabama Shakes wrecked this SLUGger and if you ever get chance, I recommend you allow them to do the same to you.