Alabama Shakes // Courtesy the Artist

Year of the Shake, Alabama Shakes

Palladium Ballroom (Dallas, TX)
– By David Huff –

Year of the Shake

There is a ‘not so silent’ rebellion taking place in the music industry these days that’s rocking the staid order down to its very core.

The sound of this movement is so simple, yet so emotionally vexing, it literally defies explanation. One of the prime movers of this organic movement – or roots music as some call this particular hybrid strain of rock, blues and country – are five very unlikely musicians simply called Alabama Shakes.

The Palladium Ballroom, located just south of downtown Dallas, was literally bursting at the seams there were so many people packed inside to catch the Shakes doing their thing. The atmosphere in this room was such, if you didn’t know any better you would have thought the venue had been turned into a house of worship, readying itself for a revival meeting instead of a concert. In an eerie way, it was.

People were eagerly mulling about as the two opening acts peppered the crowd with their own ‘good vibrations’. This is not to say that Riley Downing, Michael Kiwanuka and Sam Doores didn’t do an excellent job prepping the crowd for the main event with their respective sets. They did. The problem they couldn’t overcome was the fact these folks had long ago surrendered themselves to the Alabama Shakes.

Alabama Shakes // Courtesy the Artist

Without a doubt, this group from Athens, Alabama is the most unpretentious group of performers you’ll ever lay your eyes on. When the lights finally went down at 10 PM, the band sauntered on stage before a cheering congregation ready and willing to hear their gospel of good time rock and roll. As the band members settled in with their instruments, you almost expected a preacher with a Bible in one hand, and a clenched fist in the other, to walk out of from the shadows to address the audience. What you got instead was a fiery sermon from singer Brittany Howard this capacity crowd would not soon forget.

The heartbeat of the Alabama Shakes beats loud and proud with Howard, who also plays a mean guitar to go along with her ‘down-home’ snarl. This woman has to be the most laid back, unassuming female performer in the business today. One look at her stage apparel told you everything you needed to know about the head Shake.

Howard appeared on stage in a dress that looked like it had been purchased at a flea market. I was actually surprised the dollar price tag still wasn’t on it somewhere. I swear that bass player, Zac Cockrell, could easily pass himself off as a long-haul truck driver who had just gotten off the road. He stood in the background wearing a baseball cap, heavy beard, jeans and a tee shirt covering his enhanced beer belly. You couldn’t help but admire him. Keyboardist Ben Tanner looked like he had bought his Sunday best suit from Goodwill. Then there was guitarist Heath Fogg and drummer Steve Johnson who sported the classic “revenge of the nerd” look.  I know it sounds like I’m making fun of these musicians, but I’m not. I’m paying them a hearty compliment. This band isn’t something fashionable to do at the moment. They are the exact opposite.

The Shakes’ undeniable appeal comes from the simplicity in which they present their music both on stage and on record. Seriously, this is a group of musicians you’d love to hang out with and drink a beer, or simply sit down to shoot the shit with. This band of brothers and a sister are so unassuming they could easily walk out into a crowd before one of their sold-out shows and easily mingle with the fans. No one would recognize them. And that right there is the source of strength that has enabled Alabama Shakes to connect with a vast array of ‘folks’ around the country. People can readily identify themselves with this band. They’re the underdog you want to root and fight for, because they are the most unlikely group of musicians you’d ever peg for stardom.

This quintet’s music had been simmering in the pot for well over a year before it all boiled over the top in the fall of 2012. Again, this group stops and starts with Howard. She has an undeniable stage presence. Every ounce of energy the Shakes possess is channeled through the commanding presence of their singer. You knew she was giving it her all by the amount of perspiration that glistened from her face before, during and after every song. From that standpoint alone, it was exhilarating to watch the vocalist assert herself as she poured her heart and soul into the music.

Again, Howard’s guitar playing wasn’t anything to sneeze at either. Her performance with the instrument was just as fierce as the attitude she displayed on stage. The audience took note of it. I can guarantee you one thing. Had she walked into the crowd and commanded in her brisk Southern drawl, “Okay, y’all follow me!” they would have done it. Everyone one inside would have lined up behind her in Pied Piper fashion and followed Brittany right out the door into the night. That’s how much sway she held over this audience and the amount of respect they had for her.

It was not important to be familiar with Alabama Shakes music this evening. All you needed to do was be inside the venue to witness the experience it. If you wanted to recap the night’s music, then go back and listen to the band’s debut album. They sang practically every song off it. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of parishioners who could recite the ‘gospel according to Howard.’ The thing is you never felt out of place if you weren’t well-versed in everything Shakes.

The musical landscape in this country, as I alluded to in the opening paragraph, has been quietly going through an ‘Americana Revolution’. Ironically, it started in England last year when a rock-roots quartet from London crawled out of “The Cave”. The uprising gained further traction when three upstarts from Denver threw a “”Ho Hey”. The insurrection was in full swing as music lovers the world over frantically found tried to “Hold On” to the movement Brittany and the Boys were leading.

Alabama Shakes are improbable ‘folk’ heroes. The music is so insidiously simple it doesn’t require a wall of sound to get its message across. With this outfit, all you need is a little faith. All hail the “Year of the Shake!”

James Villa