There are some venues in the Lowcountry that I truly love when it comes to seeing live music. At the top of my list sits the North Charleston Performing Arts Center. Since it opened as the sister venue to the North Charleston Coliseum, I have seen countless shows there, and between the excellent acoustics and the gorgeous look of the place, it has almost always been a great experience. Sure, I like going to see a local or regional band in a dive bar just as much as the next live music addict, but the PAC is something special. Case in point was last Thursday's show by one of the ultra-cool bands of the moment, Alabama Shakes.
I've had friends tease me about the fact that I liked, but didn't love the Southern rock band. Sure, I've heard the album, and it definitely didn't suck, and I saw the band when it performed on Saturday Night Live. Still, I wasn't as gaga over them as most folks seemed to be. Now that I've seen Alabama Shakes live and in person, I'd like to apologize for my previous lack of enthusiasm. More on that later though.
Starting off the evening was Nashville's own majestico, who had to deal with an arriving crowd that was largely indifferent to the band's unique sound. That's too bad, because those of us that actually listened to majestico were rewarded with a set of music that seemed to fall somewhere between The Velvet Underground, The Rolling Stones, and The Stooges. Sure, the set MTV went on a bit longer than it should have, and the lead singer was trying a bit too hard to channel a young Mick Jagger, but I actually dug majestico. The bonus discovery of band member names like Jitch Mones and Joyous Todd was icing on the cake.
Next up was The Dexateens, a band from Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I'm a huge fan of Drive-By Truckers, another band that identifies heavily with Alabama, and The Dexateens delivered a very similar sound to that better-known rock outfit. There was technical trouble during the band's first song when none of the microphones seemed to work. While many bands would have halted the show while a solution to the issue was found, The Dexateens were having none of that crap. The band powered through that song, quickly fixed the glitch, and roared into the second song before anyone really realized what was happening. The band plays like a runaway locomotive whose wheels are about to fly off at the next bend. They were sloppy, irreverent, and seemed to be playing for themselves, and I loved every second of it.
Finally it was time for the evening's headliners. Most of the attention on Alabama Shakes has been focused on lead singer Brittany Howard. That's easy to believe, given her amazing voice and stage presence. Still, the rest of the band, which consists of bassist Zac Cockrell, guitarist Heath Fogg, drummer Steve Johnson, and keyboardist Ben Tanner, are all great musicians, and together they make a great deal of truly wonderful noise onstage. At last week's show all of the band members except for Howard tended to stay back out of the spotlight while Howard stood front and center. It doesn't smack of any kind of diva act on Howard's part, nor does it seem like the remaining members are being forced to keep to the shadows. For better lack of a description, the setup onstage just seems to work, especially since Howard is such an amazing performer to watch. She doesn't just sing her lyrics, she wraps her entire being around them.
Each song is a miniature theatrical performance, which isn't to say that she is acting, but rather that she takes the performance to the next level. After being underwhelmed by the band's record, seeing Alabama Shakes play live finally made me realize just why the band has gone from relative unknowns to rising stars in just a couple of years. Howard was a mail carrier prior to the band taking off, and now she's touring the world, singing in a voice that sounds like what might happen if you mixed the DNA of Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, and Big Mama Thornton. Highlights at last week's show included a performance early on of "Hold On," the first single from the band's album "Boys & Girls," as well as a gorgeous versions of "Hang Loose" and "I Ain't the Same."
Like I said before, I totally apologize for ever doubting the power possessed by this band. The thing is though, that as nice as the album is, nothing can prepare you for the full onslaught of Brittany Howard's vocals when heard live. That woman is something else.