Dave Phelan goes to Alabama Shakes at the Boston Arms, London.
It’s a rare thing for an American band to come through London for the first time riding a wave of hype and expectation on this level. In recent times rap collective Odd Future and their visceral frontman, Tyler the Creator, took the mantle but what is happening tonight is a different beast. This is The Strokes in 2001, this is Hendrix at the Marquee Club in 1966, this is a defining moment in rock and roll history.
Except for bassist Zac Cockrell Alabama Shakes don’t look like rockstars, by all accounts they don’t act like rockstars either. Michelle Stodart, of Magic Numbers fame and tonight’s support act, pays homage to her peers half-way through her set: “It’s nice to share the stage with such nice people.” Leader of the nice people, Brittany Howard, arguably the most significant voice in music since Amy Winehouse, pumps her fist in gratitude – hardly anyone in the room seems to notice.
The great and the good of the music industry have turned out. Jarvis Cocker has set up residence in front of my diminutive associate, much to her dismay. There are Lloyd Grossman-looking executives leaning against the bar talking about property prices in London, three middle-aged men (one being Geoff Travis, the man that gave the band a record deal) have plonked themselves front and centre at the stage. It’s an odd affair, if Alabama Shakes weren’t already signed to Rough Trade the event would be more akin to one of those middle-class Sunday antique auctions.
This is Alabama Shakes’ second night of three. Last night they played to a full house that included Russell Crowe, Suede’s Bernard Butler and Britain’s favourite fat person on a crusade against fat people, Jamie Oliver. But there are no signs of weariness or excess, just some of the most soulful sounds anyone will hear this side of Janis Joplin.
The set kicks off with ‘Hang Loose’, while not the quintet’s strongest charge, it’s, by far, not a weak song. It stomps and swaggers – it’s drenched in a deep-south America gentleness: “Hang Loose, go into town and I will take care of you.”
At times Howard’s voice is sickly sweet, the words drip from her mouth but when, with one head shake, her eyes bulge the singer attacks the song. She battles with the lyrics, pulling them from a place that few have found and broadcasting them in a way even fewer can manage. This is particularly evident on ‘I Found You’, which is Howard’s ‘River Deep, Mountain High’, she earnestly means every single syllable of every single word: “I travelled a long way, until I found you.”
What this band does, and does exceptionally well, is start a song in five different ways before merging to form a heavy but exalted wall of glee-inducing grandeur
Guitarist Heath Fogg is a minimalist when it comes to gimmickry, his distorted and slightly reverberant licks, riffs and hooks fall into Howard’s growl – marrying to forge an ethereal roots sound in a moment that grabs your heart hard and without any remorse.
There’s little chatter in between songs, the band seem shy but not introspective, just shy. There doesn’t need to be chatter, Ben Tanner on the Hammond organ tinkers and hammers, it’s a glorious din that lends the music a gospel-like air.
‘Hold on’ is the song upon which this band will make their bid for the big time. It’s a melody from another age, it’s a rhythm that the music world thought was dead. Fogg’s happy-go-lucky guitar plays foil to Howard’s desperate refrains: “Bless my heart, bless my soul. Didn’t think I’d make it to 22 years old.” What this band does, and does exceptionally well, is start a song in five different ways before merging to form a heavy but exalted wall of glee-inducing grandeur.
‘You Ain’t Alone’ sees Howard at her finest, there is a valour in her voice as she sings: “Are you scared to wear your heart out on your sleeve? Are you scared of me?” It’s followed by an ascending repetition of “alright”, Howard may be performing in a dank room somewhere in north London, but she is, literally, singing to the sky. Her forlorn petition for the song’s subject to “cry with me” soars upwards before crashing back down and landing on the beery, sticky, floor of The Boston Arms: “But you, you ain’t alone, let me be your ticket home.”
The night closes with a re-imagining of T-Rex’s ‘20th Century Boy’ before a brief encore, it’s a perfect, raucous and fulfilling end to what has been one of the finest debuts London has seen.
Jarvis Cocker is impressed: “I think they’re just, they’re just really, really great,” he says as most of the crowd mush on by without noticing a very noticeable rockstar in their midst – tonight’s not the night for the lauding of elders. Tonight’s the night the game changed. Tonight’s Alabama Shakes’ night.