Sunday, May 17, 2015

Alabama Shakes, Manchester Apollo, 16th May 2015 8/10

Even for those of a progressive outlook, change can be problematic. My first, and only previous live encounter with Alabama Shakes in 2012 was a revelation, largely due to the incredible charisma of Brittany Howard. It's taken three years to release a second album, and as long for the band to return to Manchester. It may have been tempting to consolidate the popular success of Boys and Girls and produce another retro Muscle Shoals soul record, but instead they took a far more adventurous path. Sound and Colour draws on wider influences, extending as far as grunge, heavy rock and punk. I welcome this change of direction, but some in the audience seemed to be challenged by a set understandably heavy on new songs. The level of background noise was less surprising during the highly creditable support act Slow Club, and the choice of Songhoy Blues to open for them in Birmingham was more logical. However, it's staggering that so many continued to talk through such a mesmerising act as Alabama Shakes. This noise obscured some of the light and shade in Brittany's performance: the impact of more extrovert moments is enhanced by her subtlety in dialling back the tension.

For me, it was not the new music I had difficulty accepting last night, but the inevitable move to a large venue following the explosion in their profile. It would be churlish to begrudge this deserved success: Brittany expressed gratitude to her fans last night, stating she can remember when nobody took any notice. She also exclaimed in an interview: 'Man, we met the President? We’re from a small town in Alabama, and that doesn’t happen.' Yet, experience of being directly in front of Brittany whist she sings is a world away from viewing the stage from afar, as is being amongst music lovers compared to some for whom the act is a backdrop to a social experience. Brittany's vocals were also drowned out by the drums from my seating position at the front of the balcony, close to the PA speakers. This shortcoming was ironic, considering my joy on discovering that Sound and Colour's production was far superior to the one dimensional sound of their first album.

Yet, Brittany's skill at dealing with a heckler who'd learned to imitate her howl was masterly, particularly as his intervention was initially amusing, but soon became tiresome. Her performance is still utterly, astonishingly committed, and incredibly emotional. She stretches her voice, at times to a falsetto to rival Prince's, with a unforgettable ferocity. Alabama Shakes now performs as a nine piece, with three gospel backing singers and two keyboard players, yet Brittany absolutely remains at the heart of the performance. She expresses a charismatic, religious zeal in those vocals, which during songs such as the funky Don't Want To Fight almost break down. Yet, I particularly appreciated the more dreamy, psychedelic moments, as in Gemini which closed the main set. This gave a necessary contrast from the frenetic melodrama of songs such as The Greatest. I did regret the omission of older favourites such as Hold On, though the unbuttoned Hang Loose and the rousing Rise to The Sun from the first LP were compensation. Shoegaze also provided a bridge in style between the old and new.

If the venue and the crowd meant that the reacquaintance with Alabama Shakes didn't quite meet my exalted expectations, it's still clear that the band hasn't forgotten their humble beginnings in Athens when Brittany was a postal worker. At times, the set did seem almost too slick and rehearsed, one more stop on a relentless world touring schedule. Yet, we were reminded of the authenticity when Brittany explained that Heartbreaker was about someone who'd spent too much time in prison; inevitably in the circumstances, an audience member shouted out that he'd also done so. Despite the grand production, Sound and Colour isn't about immediacy: its inventiveness demands careful acquaintance alone with the album. Despite this, Brittany has not just grown in confidence, but importantly also become musically more ambitious: I'm excited to see where that journey takes Alabama Shakes by the third album, without ever forgetting my astonishing first encounter.

  1. Don't Wanna Fight 
  2. Rise to the Sun 
  3. Dunes 
  4. Future People 
  5. Heartbreaker 
  6. Over My Head 
  7. Miss You 
  8. The Greatest 
  9. Shoegaze 
  10. Hang Loose 
  11. Gimme All Your Love 
  12. Be Mine 
  13. Gemini 

  1. Joe 
  2. Always Alright 
  3. You Ain't Alone 
Brittany in Manchester in May 2012

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