Alabama Shakes made its NYC debut at the Bowery Ballroom on Thursday evening, but you’d be hard-pressed to say so if you didn’t know. The group, led by firecracker of a frontwoman, Brittany Howard, plays a vibrant, up-on-your-haunches blend of neo-soul and rock. Think Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings without the brass and with a hint of Southern rock flair. Howard’s voice is the star of the show, a commanding instrument full of emotion and bravado, Janis Joplin on a steady diet of old Motown 45s. Howard’s music is about the joy in suffering: the classic ability of soul to wring happiness out of pain, to find release in full-throated expression. When guided by such an articulate leader, the audience can’t help but do the same.
Play orchestral music built around the violin and a loop pedal and comparisons to Andrew Bird will come guaranteed. Marques Toliver should be used to that by now. He plays the instrument with as much poise as Bird, but Toliver’s results are subtly different. Firstly — and most deserving of our endless gratitude — dude doesn’t whistle. On a more substantive level, Toliver has a stronger voice than Bird, and he uses his violin to create music less precious than his (currently) more well-known counterpart. Tracks like “Sitting Up in the Room” and “Deep in My Heart” see Toliver laying gentle melodies above which to sing with verve and sensuality totally absent from Bird’s latent twee sensibilities. When his band departs, his songs become less poppy and more elliptical. Throughout the show, Toliver-whether solo or with band-seemed to be improvising to a fair extent, starting songs and then changing his mind, or looking to his band to follow his lead. Rather than seeming sloppy, the loose feel gave the set an approachable, charming vibe. Toliver announced at the end of his set his placement onto the Grammy’s ballot for Best New Artist; he’ll have plenty of competition, but it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch.
Sometimes you discover something in a place where you know, instinctively, it does not belong: the errant bowtie noodle in your bowl of spaghetti; Stephen Colbert in an episode of Law & Order: SVU. Lydia served this role at the Bowery tonight. This is the type of band that made “emo” a slur in the 2000’s, the soundtrack to a suburban hellscape of endless banality. Vocalist Haircut Zoolander-Face wore his guitar as an accessory just as often as he strummed it. Insipid, toothless, and destined to make buckets of money.
Leave it to an English band to unite the disparate strands of The Bends-era Britpop and Fleet Foxes-inspired Americana. Dry the River knows a good role model when it sees one, and it manages to weave an engaging — if not all too fresh — sound out of a number of heavy-hitting influences. Yorke-esque falsetto ends up sounding quite nice next to fiddle, as finger-picked acoustic guitar gives way to crushing drums and churning guitars. Cinematic and charming, Dry the River should be good listening for the next time you need to inflate your routine with a bit more drive and drama.
Erika M. Anderson has gotten good at this. She only has one record as EMA, the surefire Best-of-2011 candidate Past Life Martyred Saints, but she honed her skills as a live performer in GOWNS and has brought a sense of ruthless efficiency to EMA’s setlists. Anderson and band began their set quietly, with Saints’s highpoint “Marked” and the first half of “The Grey Ship”; when the latter song shifted into its dramatic coda, EMA let loose as a whole, with Anderson marching confidently about the stage as her band thundered behind her. A surprise cover of Violent Femmes’s “Day After Day,” doused in squall and given significantly greater stopping power, got the crowd moving, and a stunner of a new solo number proved Anderson’s creative prowess hasn’t slowed while she’s been touring. She already gives off the swagger of a rock star twice her age, and she’s doubtlessly going nowhere but up from here.