When a fellow music-loving friend first introduced me to Alabama Shakes last year, I was astonished by the voice exuding from frontwoman Brittany Howard’s mouth. And when the group performed on “Saturday Night Live” in February, the amazement continued.
Fast forward to Tuesday night, when the Shakes brought its grit to Columbus for the first time at the Lifestyle Communities Pavilion. It’s clear the 24-year-old guitarist and lead vocalist is to thank for the recent fame.
The Athens, Ala.-based southern soul group kicked off its summer tour, taking the stage around 10 p.m., starting with “Rise to the Sun,” and for the next 70 minutes, Howard emitted infectious passion, energy and personality.
If you’ve heard or read anything about these southern rockers in the last few months, you’ve probably noticed that much of the Shake’s hype comes from Howard, and rightfully so. Her Janis Joplin-esque, erupting vocals command the stage and make up for her impassive, stiff backing band, who just get lost among the fog onstage.
This woman contains more star power in her pinky than most lead vocalists I’ve seen live. As if her powerhouse lungs weren’t enough, Howard is equally capable of producing an eruption of applause from guitar solos. Her instrumental talent shined several times throughout the night, the most memorable being from the Chuck Berry-inspired track, “Heavy Chevy.”
Most songs performed were off debut album “Boys & Girls,” such as “Hang Loose,” “I Found You” and “I Ain’t the Same.” In fact, the night was almost a complete reproduction of the album’s tracks, despite a couple of new songs – “Always Alright” and the upbeat “Makin’ Me Itch”– sprinkled in the mix.
Three songs into its set, the band broke out with single “Hold On,” causing a massive sing along from the audience and making it difficult to believe about a year ago, Howard was still delivering mail for the U.S. Postal Service. However, the best of the set came from Howard’s belting and roaring vocals on songs “Be Mine” and “Heartbreaker.”
The talking was kept to a minimum throughout the performance, with just a few breaks between songs for chances to express gratitude and ask how the crowd was doing, letting the music speak for itself. And that’s just what the band’s gospel-infused, garage rock did. Certainly built around Howard’s magical growling voice, the Shakes captivated a packed LC Pavilion.
Folk band Houndmouth opened the show with its soothing, gospel-esque harmonies, most notably from keyboardist Katie Toupin, and Nashville-based band Jonny Fritz was up next. Named after its lead vocalist, the country-driven group was lively and engaging with witty lyrics, but Joshua Hedley, the fiddler, was most impressive.
The night came to an end with the Shakes soulful and emotional rendition of “You Ain’t Alone” before closing with a three-song encore.
The grit and emotion of the Alabama Shakes Tuesday night made for a sincere performance and to see the bluesy, ’60s-inspired and fiery presence that Howard hones was a treat in itself.
After now having experienced what all the talk is about, I can only think of one way to explain this group and its newfound fame: Sometimes the hype is trustworthy.