There was no doubt that the Alabama Shakes would be welcomed into Seattle with open arms. The Athens, Alabama band’s down-home garage soul sounds like it could have been culled from select parts of what various local artists aspire to be, and with the voice of dynamic frontwoman Brittany Howard thrown into the mix, the result is a group that seems almost tailor-made to leave Seattleites frothing at the mouth. Few figured just how fervent the anticipation would be, however, as the show–like several other dates on the ‘Shakes first headlining tour–sold out quicker than expected. Since when do you have to order tickets three weeks in advance for a show at The Crocodile? Regardless, several hopeful attendees were left ticket-less and scrambling as the show drew near. I saw someone offering $60 for a single ticket on Craigslist, and as I arrived at The Crocodile two desperate fans were posted on Blanchard St., haplessly holding a torn-off piece of cardboard with “Need 2 Tickets” scrawled on it in Sharpie. It was understandable. The band is currently at a magical point in their career’s trajectory, blossoming at a pace that the music industry has yet to catch up to, and filling the venues they play with a buzzing sense of kismet. The Crocodile on Tuesday night was no exception.
Lost in the hysteria were openers Quiet Life, a four-piece group from Portland that played easy-going Americana inspired by Laurel Canyon and The Band. They featured a pleasing mix of down-tempo folk and ripping electric jams, with the performance gaining steam as the night wore on and the venue began to fill. By the end of their set they had brought out ‘Shakes bassist Zac Cockrell and The Moondoggies’ Kevin Murphy, ultimately bringing things home with with an energetic communal number. It goes without saying that Quiet Life were lucky as hell to have drawn the opening slot on the Alabama Shakes coming-out tour, but as some guy once said, luck is the residue of design, and Quiet Life were more than deserving of the prime gig.
Most came to know the Alabama Shakes by way of their four-song, self-titled EP. Released in September of 2011, the EP is catchy, incendiary at times, tender at times, and bursting with the exuberance of front woman Brittany Howard’s unchained, soulful wail from beginning to end. What no recording can convey, however, is the dominating magnetism of the live-and-in-person version of Howard, who controlled the room with her Southern charm and indelible confidence. Though the band, which included a touring keyboardist in addition to the four members you’ll see in press shots, was particularly impressive, on the same stage as Howard they couldn’t help but slide into the periphery. Her soaring, afflicted howl brought to mind Janis Joplin, while her physicality and accentuating “huhs,” “heys,” and “alrights” conjured James Brown. She could pull off absolutely anything she wanted vocally and otherwise, and she did, expressing herself not just through the merits of her voice, but in an all-encompassing visceral sense that was nothing short of goosebump-inducing.
The four familiar songs from the EP were spaced more or less evenly throughout the set, and the opening licks of each were greeted with resounding approval from the audience. Looking around the room as they played, I was amazed by how many people were singing along with every word like they were songs they had grown up with. The rest of the set was comprised of equally impactful songs that will likely appear on their forthcoming full-length debut Boys and Girls, which ATO will release April 10. The highlight of the night, though, was the slow-burning “You Ain’t Alone,” for which Howard put aside her guitar to deliver a jaw-dropping vocal performance. I simply stood and stared at her dumbly as the song crescendo-ed, in disbelief at how amazing it was.
What was so striking about the ‘Shakes performance was how seasoned they seemed for a band only a few weeks into their first headlining tour. With their apparent abundance of material, their chemistry, their adoring followers, and the commanding stage presence of Howard, they had the feel of a band that had been honing their skills on the road for years. The only sign of their relative nascence was the fact that they were playing in a venue as small as The Crocodile. Those in attendance knew that they never would get to see the ‘Shakes on a stage so intimate again, which is part of what made the show so special. Though they’ll certainly be playing a bigger venue the next time they come through Seattle, I’d still recommend ordering tickets well in advance.
[ed. note: Alabama Shakes have been announced for the 2012 Sasquatch! Music Festival!]