Alabama Shakes

19 September 2013 - Charleston, SC

by Raymond E. Lee

10 October 2013

Ms. Howard isn't much for talking between songs, yet when she does there comes from her mouth a gravity of soul and generous humor that stands in glaring contrast to the subject matter of her lyrics.
Photo by
Kim Metso, courtesy Wikimedia Commons 

Brittany Howard seduces every able bodied man in Charleston

Alabama Shakes

19 Sep 2013: North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center — Charleston, SC

Despite popular opinion, a southern accent isn’t an obstacle to be overcome. It is quite the opposite. The soft rounding of r’s, when combined with laxed vowel pronunciation, can often add a charming, almost sensual appeal to the speaker’s personality. With the addition of many bizarre, geographically unique idioms and expressions not often heard outside isolated pockets of the Deep South, one wonders why the youth today, especially southern youth, concentrate so intently on non-regional diction. As with most bastions of dying popular culture the southern accent is widely considered by society as a whole as a throwback, a relic, or novelty and it is commonly feared amongst southerners that their wonderful accent makes them sound ignorant.

This just isn’t so. While most anyone can spit out a few misguided sentences in what is colloquially deemed ‘hick’ vernacular, this is merely the refuge of cliché. It is the rich yet subtle paring down of the English language that makes a southern accent so beautiful, and indeed the south is replete with examples of a similar resistance to the American monoculture.

One need look no further than the historic port city of Charleston, South Carolina if he or she were so interested in finding a setting as timeless and vibrant as the southern drawl. Just off the water the multi-pastel houses of Rainbow Row reflect the colonial ambition of rebellious settlers. A short walk from there leads one past antebellum townhouse mansions, splendid structures that are monstrous in size and designed to take up as little street-front as possible. They sit in catty cornered gothic jumbles, beautiful but bizarre, an effort by the wealthy men who constructed them to avoid the tax code of the day.

There is wealth in Charleston, a great, old amount of it. The architecture is one testament, sure, but few Americans outside the humble state of South Carolina realize how the housing bubble burst all around it but not so much here. So while the middle class shrinks in places like California, Illinois, and New York this eastern portion of the south hasn’t experienced the crushing blow so many other more vocal communities have. Real estate prices remain astronomical in South Carolina’s second city, but the cost of living is more than affordable and what’s better is how this has contributed to Charleston’s flourishing culture. The ultra rich require a service industry to supply their quality of life, and it seems every bartender, barista and bellboy in town is in a band. In addition, the heavy side of social drinking culture present in Charleston means every corner bar and cafe has live music nearly every night of the week. 

Take note young musicians: forsake Brooklyn, Austin, or Nashville, and move to Charleston. You can live, and live well here while waiting for your record deal or big break to come through. At the very least, don’t make the same mistake as the Alabama Shakes, who despite their proximity and snowballing success visited Charleston for the first time in their careers on September 19.

Perhaps it was their ignorance of the locale which influenced the Shakes’ choice of venue. The North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center is a fine theatre. It is sleek and modern, seating 13,000 with acoustics at the forefront of the field, but it just wasn’t the right cut for the Shakes jib. Much like a southern accent the Alabama Shakes brand of blues infused gospel pop seems ill at ease with the contrivances of modern taste.

Due to the over-whelming success of the Shakes’ debut and only album to date, Boys and Girls the Coliseum was filled to capacity. It is doubtful any other venue in town could have contained so many fans, but the lack of general admittance space meant Ms. Brittany Howard’s stage presence didn’t inspire the same hysteria as a club or festival venue. It is difficult to dance at a sit down theatre, but it is difficult not to dance when confronted by the raw emotive resonance of the Alabama Shakes.

The performance suffered very little despite seating, but some fans noted the lack of crowd interaction as a strike against the over-all show. Few first time Shakes attendees could imagine the inherent difference. This worked in the group’s favor as few in attendance would have seen them previously. Ms. Howard admitted such openly from the stage, apologizing after “Always Alright,” and then again later in the night for not stopping in Charleston sooner.

Ms. Howard isn’t much for talking between songs, yet when she does there comes from her mouth a gravity of soul and generous humor that stands in glaring contrast to the subject matter of her lyrics. Boys and Girls might be mistaken for a break-up album, though close scrutiny of the hard luck love life songs reveals something more than that. The undercurrent of emotion surfaces in certain choruses in deep cut tracks where Ms. Howard confesses how desperately she just wants to be loved, respected and treated well. But far from pathetic, this concession from the lips of a veritable babe, a 24-year old, speaks profoundly for her intelligence and maturity, while so many other rock mamas employ sexuality devoid of emotion and love bereft of connection.  Combine that with the purely heart wrenching expressions wrought out across her face during vocal sustains, her eyes screwed shut tightly, the head tilted back to deliver every decibel possible from an over strained diaphragm.

It is humbling to watch Ms. Howard perform, and then to consider she isn’t just singing but striking out melodic rhythm and hot leads on her famous teal Telecaster concurrently. It forces one to wonder what foolish man could ever have let such a wonderfully talented, beautiful, and soulful woman go. And how do you imagine he sleeps at night, knowing every show the Alabama Shakes play is full of men who’d give the devil their head for a shot at that prize? 

As with most Alabama Shakes performances, Ms. Brittany Howard dominated the stage. It is uncertain whether the rest of the group has been directed to keep out of the spotlight or if it’s a personal preference on the part of the band to focus intently on the music. Either way, there was little left to be desired. It must be remembered the group’s entire discography compromises less than an hour of music, so they can’t rightfully be faulted for staging an encore which repeated songs from earlier in the performance, but judging by audience reaction it mattered very little.

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