The smell of freshly lit herb wafted in the air like some kind of incense offering to the God of live music.
Forty-five minutes prior, the Dexateens left the stage, thanking the headliners for giving them the best time of their lives. Ten minutes ago, the funky pre-show music suddenly stopped, leaving everyone in the audience expecting Levon & the Band to come crashing onstage with their classic rendition of “Don’t Do It” – but that’s not what happened. Instead, cutting across the stage and through the fog came the five Shakes members, walking without an ounce of decadent swagger. Under the purple lights they manned their instruments to receptive applause, wordlessly counted off, and dove headfirst into a searing version of “Rise to the Sun”.
But what came out of the amplifiers on this September Saturday in Nashville was not what’s been coming out of your headphones for the past five months; rather, it was something much larger, a sound that didn’t just hang with the nearly-full moon over our heads, but loomed above us like a wet tarp, enveloping us in rich, southern soul music. If, somehow, the energy of Brittany Howard and her Shakes could have been harnessed for a record that night, it may have sounded something like Sallie Ford’s vocal smeared deep into the grooves of a vinyl copy of Rubber Factory – but alas, it could not have been, and that is the beauty of the live experience.
Alabama Shakes’ “Always Alright”
The song ended. The audience, floored, gave up a humble round of applause – they now knew whose presence it was that they were standing in – and listened intently as Brittany churned out strongly accented spoken word like heavy cream: “It’s a good night to be here in Nashville, Tennessee!” The audience, a menagerie of college kids, 30 something married couples, and grey old men wearing Muscle Shoals T-shirts readily agreed, poured out more applause, and promptly fastened themselves down in their footsteps for whatever would come next.
They picked up and fell through a steady-rollicking performance of their hits “Hang Loose”, “Hold On” and “Always Alright”. The organ howled, the guitar weeped, Brittany made you wonder how she still had a voice after doing this every night, and the band rocked and rolled through cut-time, double-time and a handful of 6/8 waltzes that even made the frat boys in the audience tap their feet.
Perhaps what made Saturday’s concert so enjoyable was its simplicity; the crowd that had gathered there had certainly come for the music. The few teenagers playing air drums congregated up front near the stage and had left everyone else behind them to enjoy a performance that was fairly reminiscent of a mid-century soul concert. The band, although colorfully lit, stood against a plain black backdrop, slightly shrouded in fog, and didn’t put on any more of a show than they had to. “Y’all, I’m really, really nervous,” was all Brittany would say between songs. If she was, it certainly didn’t show. Mic in hand, she stood rooted in place, her guitar in its stand for a large portion of the time, and let guitarist Heath Fogg’s trebly double-stops fend for themselves against the organ (which, in all honesty, was a close second in terms of showmanship).
By the end of a 12-song set and a 3-song encore, the Alabama Shakes left no doubt in anyone’s mind: it was a good night to be here in Nashville, Tennessee.
Written by Lake Markham
Photos from Samantha Wideberg
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