Alabama Shakes are named quite literally. They are from Alabama, and when they play, there is no way to stay still. Even slower numbers like “Hold On” warrant hands in the air, "Can I get a witness"-style. Their sold out show at Brooklyn Bowl was packed with witnesses, all there to absorb the blues, soul, and rock and roll preaching from fierce vocalist/guitarist Brittany Howard. Howard’s voice warrants comparisons to many blues legends, such as Etta James and Aretha Franklin, but then she pounds her guitar, dances across the stage, and turns up the rock and grit levels in a way that makes even the most uptight hipster feel it their bones.
It’s not all just about Howard, lead guitarist Heath Fogg, bassist Zac Cockrell, and drummer Steve Johnson all play an important part in getting the message across. While they wild-out on their own parts however, they are content to let Howard have the spotlight, even playing it cool during their own solos. Every once in a while Howard puts down her guitar to really work the stage, including singing to her bandmates and feeding off of their energy.
Speaking of energy, the levels reached at this show was unmeasurable. They of course played all the songs off their self-titled EP, plus the extra gems they busted out that may lead one to believe there is a full-length on the horizon. One of these was an ode to Howard’s mother, a topic she approached with intense soul and honest appreciation. It was both endearing and amazing, not only to even have that be pat of a set of bluesy love songs and down and dirty rock and roll, but also to see the crowd shouting along with a general vibe of ‘hell yeah, my mom is awesome!’ But then again, the crowd shoute with hands in the air to every song Alabama Shakes played. The best was most certainly saved for last, when the band busted out a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “How Many More Times.” That was nothing short of badass.
Although Alabama Shakes conquered the night without questions, opener Spirit Family Reunion had its moments as well. This rag-tag outfit played only traditional instruments with no electric inputs, that looked like they had been through both world wars. The big old double bass had definitely seen better days, as well as the fiddle, acoustic guitar, banjo, and the “drum kit” consisting of a snare and kick. This only added to their character, and after watching all the members play the hell out of their instruments, it was easy to understand why the instruments looked like they had taken such a beating. Spirit Family Reunion played with everything they had, even if the crowd wasn’t quite ready to reciprocate.
They were a mini-spectacle, aided by a percussionist that was mainly on washboard duties. Washboard man demonstrated that it’s an art unto itself, clicking, clacking, and dragging metal bottle openers over the slats of a washboard that was secured only by tucking the wooden legs into his jean pockets. When he wasn’t grabbing attention with that, he was banging a big bass drum like a gong, running around between the other players, and popping up to one of their mics to take part in the collective singing. The trio of the fiddle, guitar, and banjo front and center all sang around the same mic with a Grand Ol’ Opry feel. This collective singing is what really gave their songs strength, and for their last song they invited the crowd to uncross their arms and sing along. Through this, they demonstrated the power even the most simple words can have when a large group of people all sing together.
Alabama Shakes have a good number of tour dates ahead, all the way up through February where they end in the UK. See all the dates and keep up with them on Facebook. Spirit Family Reunion have a residency at The Living Room, giving New Yorkers extra chances to have a time out and take in some classic Nashville in this big, busy city.