Alabama Shakes The End Of The Road

The Alabama Shakes have been heralded as the messianic cotton belt saviours of rock. We were lucky enough to see them playing at the End Of The Road Festival, Larmer Tree Gardens, North Dorset, UK. this weekend.

The current hype has it that the destiny of stadium-sized rock now lays in their hands. Sell out shows and platinum coloured discs, halls of fame and talk-show commotion – everything that we associate with ‘big rock acts’ now depends, rather  unpromisingly, on a large, bespectacled, shabbily dressed lady and her improbable band of startled hill-billy misfit cronies.

But I can now say that, without question, something has at last come along that the oldies can expropriate and call  ‘my music’. It is amazing to think that the future of ‘Dad Rock’ is in the hands of this group of sweaty cotton-picking yokels  –  all the way from the Heart of Dixie – who just started out in 2009.

Dismal quarterly figures have had record company executives sobbing into their mid-morning macchiatos over the last few weeks. It is said that the lack of big-name acts was to blame. Rihanna could not even do it for them. She managed to top the UK chart with sales of only 9,578 CDs and downloads combined. [Talk That Talk]. It was the worst sales performance seen since records (and records)  began.

So now, more than ever, we need a really great band. And a really BIG name. The Alabama Shakes have stepped up to take the baton. Rising from total obscurity, in just over three years they have propelled themselves to the top. They are now ready to assume the role as the Defenders of Rock  I would not dare to suggest that their singer Brittany Howard is anything other than self deprecating and modest – but she mentioned the type of line-up which she has imagined that her band could play alongside in a year or two –  when she told  EoTR that it would “probably be AC / DC … Led Zeppelin, Tina Turner and the Rolling Stones …”

So, do they stand up to the hype? Oh my God, yes. When they play live, they exceed all expectations.

When the Alabama Shakes took to the Woods stage at Larmer Tree Gardens on Saturday they looked like they had just got up after a happy day spent disposing giant moonshine hangovers in some long forgotten ditch on the huge Dorset estate – probably in a muddy haystack, near a festering pig-swill silo.

Brittany was dressed in a black top, with gauzy Walmart scarf, improper brown boots and her hair rushed into unconvincing ponytails, her trusty Harmony Rocket guitar strapped high. Bass guitarist Zac Cockrell was wearing a pair of stained denim overalls and a brown cap. Up on one side of the stage –  high on an alter piece – sat Ben Tanner on keyboards, wearing an old thrift store pin-striped jacket. “My quest is to make him a star” Brittany screamed.  At the side of Brittany, and for the entire duration, stood guitarist Heath Fogg,  who was wearing a blue denim shirt, and clutching his pearly Gibson. Drummer Steve Johnson was also at the front-of-stage wearing a dirty baseball cap and a murky sweat shirt.

So what were they like? Well, if you can imagine Robert Palmer, Chuck Berry and Tina Turner, all rolled  into one, you get close to the experience. Back when they started, the Shakes covered songs by Led Zeppelin, James Brown and Otis Redding. And it still shows.

At this stage (anyway) the band seems to be a mechanism for the unbelievably talented firebrand Brittany Howard to purvey her kind of frenzied soul. They are the best retro rock, roots and soul band I’ve ever seen. Or I have ever imagined, for that matter.

With songs like ‘Hang Loose’ from ‘Boys & Girls’ [2012]- their numbers jauntily roll along and have a husky sweetness to them- they sound like the kind of work you might associate with bands like The Faces. With an innocent, yet clever, blues-rock accompaniment.

Or ‘Hold On’ that twangs a lot deeper and may remind you of something by Eddie Cochran. The cotton-dust digs deep in your veins. Rivulets of sweet dripping guitar notes are uncontrollably lost on a peanut-shell-strewn shelf of rhythm. And the voice is filled out with sweet spasms of pleasure. Just experiencing that rubbery rib-shack rockabilly beat makes you feel alive.

‘Rise To The Sun’ is a beast more difficult to define. The sweet icy voice plays it soft at times, but rapidly this song evolves into a generously pluming bubble bath of sounds –  a flood of rattling emotions – as a celebration of vibrant guitars storms in, to take you off guard.

And ‘Boys & Girls’ is their Al Green sounding  piece. Laden with sentimental feeling and lush melancholy memories, it manages to create an atmosphere of empathy with the crowd who, en masse, swayed unashamed to the waltzing rhythm.

So, in a world of lack-lustre ‘stars’ – and the forgettable fodder that they spew out –  impressive performance is hard to find . Musicians who really know how to bring a crowd to its feet are in the minority.  But the Alabama Shakes are the real thing.

And take note. The greatest gift that the Alabama Shakes has to offer is the power to unite. They can bring absolute peace in a broken world. They create harmony for all. The rifts in the rock universe are about to be healed by this band. So, come together, right now. Over these.

– © Neil_Mach September 2012 –


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