"I wrote this song for a friend of mine. He was a little boy and I was a little girl. He was like a brother to me. We grew older and people said we were too old to be friends. I said 'That's some bullshit.'"
Such is the story of the title track of Alabama Shakes' breakthrough first album Boys and Girls, released in April. Singer Brittany Howard explained the lyrics and then jumped into the song that explores an age old question: Why can't boys and girls just be friends? While the song doesn't offer a definitive answer, it offers a comfort of being relatable. The lyrics of the rest of the album more or less follow suit: relatable and lamentable but optimistic tunes.
The effect of the songs were evident from the response of the packed audience last night. For example, during "You Ain't Alone" roars of approval rang through the Fox Theater after every single poignant lyric:
"Are you scared to tell somebody how you feel about somebody?" ("Yes!" cried one audience member).
"Are you scared to wear your heart out on your sleeve?"
"Are you scared of me?"
Each change of pace was followed by cacophonous cheers throughout the whole set. When Howard belted out her signature intense sound the crowd would obviously scream in approval. But even when the band and vocals quieted down to just above a whisper, the same hollers would burst from the audience.
Howard's voice draws comparisons to that of Janis Joplin's and understandably so. Both women rose to fame at an early age (Howard is 23) and both have a commanding voice that will steal the attention of anyone who hears whether they like it or not. When male musicians are compared to another 1960's iconoclast, Mr. Bob Dylan, they are dismissed as unoriginal and it's an image that's hard to shake. Howard's voice should never be judged as copy cat. Her voice is her own.
One complaint: Alabama Shakes' songs are too damn short live. Perhaps the songs are so enjoyable that the concert whizzes by. But the fact that they squeezed 19 songs into an hour and fifteen minutes suggests the former. The set began with "Goin' to the Party." It was short. It was powerful, and it set the tone for the whole evening: short-but-mighty.
They got the hits out of the way early. "Hang Loose" was second. She signaled for her vocals to be turned up, and with no disrespect to the rest of the band, it's unlikely any fan would have objected. "Hold On" was third-another hit. It's a bold move for a band but it allows fly-by fans to leave early and happy and let true fans have some breathing room (Have you ever seen Gotye live? It's astounding how many people bounce after "Somebody That I Used to Know." Sad.)
Overnight success hasn't seemed to go to there head--onstage at least. The guys often wear T-shirts--they don't seem to be trying to uphold any image. Midway through one song about heartbreak, Howard spoke to the crowd. "This part here is called the bridge and after the bridge, I'm supposed to change the subject." She said she's supposed to say she's wiser now and she's learned from her mistakes. "But sometimes live doesn't work out that way and it takes a long time to figure that shit out." God bless her soul-bearing honesty.
Moral of the story: Alabama Shakes are not groundbreaking. If you look back far enough, you will find similar femal-fronted bands. But they are bringing some of America's musical heritage to the masses; spanning age and genre gaps. They've introduced new fans to the heart, fun and soul of blues and southern rock in less than three years time--and in the end isn't that what really matters?
Critic's Bias: Alabama Shakes are the first band to give me goosebumps and shake in my boots repeatedly.
The Crowd: Rowdy as fuck. They didn't chant, "One more song!" for an encore. They screamed the whole time and rapidly stomped the floor until the band came back.
Overheard in the Crowd: [After seeing me write in my notebook:] "Are you writing to like review this?" No, dear, I'm writing my will.
Random Notebook Dump: Fox Theater you're so pretty. Y U no have more concerts?
Goin' to the Party
Boys and Girls
On Your Way
I Found You
Rise to the Sun
You Ain't Alone
I Ain't the Same