I recently heard someone describe Florence Welch (of Florence and the Machine) as "singing like her clothes are on fire. In a good way." That crossed my mind while I was watching Alabama Shakes perform "Hold On" at The Orange Peel. Front woman Brittany Howard sings with something akin to abandon, but abandonment only in the sense that she's relinquished all else and given herself completely to the song. As if her life depended on it. As if she was pleading her case before the firing squad. As if this was the last song the world would ever hear.
It's almost scary to watch someone perform that way. You wonder if she'll ruin her voice, or if she'll get too caught up in the heartache and hard living of which she sings and ruin herself. You think, she could step back a bit. She'd still be fantastic with half the effort, half the fiery apparel, and no one listening would think anything less of her. Then you think, now that you know Howard can do this, you kind of want to see what will happen if she pushes just a little farther, nudges her voice even closer to that jagged edge.
Alabama Shakes — five young musicians with seemingly old souls — channel the likes of Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Carla Thomas and "Pigpen" McKernan. While Heath Fogg (guitar), Zac Cockrell (bass), Steve Johnson (drums) and newly-added keys player Ben Tanner are undeniably skilled, because they don't sing (or move around much), they aren't any where near as dynamic as Howard. What they do, though, on almost every song, is start out at a super-high level of energy and then build from there. Where, in good rock songs, there's a coiled tension just waiting to snap, in an Alabama Shakes song its a live wire reeling and snapping, stopping just short of all-out immolation.
There's a certain tried-and-true methodology at work here. Nothing that Alabama Shakes is doing is reinventing the wheel. They're taking cues from MoTown and soul, from the great '60s acts born of the South when times were harder and the blues was a way of life instead of a fashion statement. The heart-beat thump of kick drum and the faded Levi's shades of Hammond B3 are accessories to a sound, placing each song within the context of an era as well as an emotion. But, all of that aside, what Alabama Shakes does has this feeling of rightness. You don't have to work to like them. You don't have to suss out the groove or the appropriate response. You're dancing before you realize it. You're trying to sing along to a song that Howard introduces as "a new one," but still you feel like you know it because it comes off as so lovingly dog eared and ingrained. It feels like second-nature, this music that recalls the history (for better or worse) of a south not altogether lost to progress and the march of time. And it plumbs the emotional landscape that we all share (for better or worse), from lost loves and bitter regrets to the electric fuzz of boozy nights and the negotiations with god required to get out of bed each morning.
Late in their set, Alabama Shakes played "You Ain't Alone," the song they placed in a Zales campaign this holiday season. But seeing Howard sing it from the stage, it took on facets and nuances lost on the polished jewelry-bedecked commercial. And then (nodding to the obvious comparison) the band wove in a chorus of Joplin's "Cry Baby."
It was a short show — just about an hour — and then the band returned for a two-song encore during which Howard free-versed her thanks to Asheville for such a good turn out. She seemed genuinely surprised (though Alabama Shakes has started selling out their shows already). Indeed, the venue was near-capacity on a Thursday night. Two days before New Year's Eve. Not just anyone can do that.