Brittany Howard didn’t chat much between songs, but with a voice like that, why waste it on talking?
Taking the stage for the second of two sold out shows at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre, the Alabama Shake's singer made sure to introduce the other members of the band, to thank the crowd for their energy, and to remark on the beauty of the venue. But mainly she sang: shrieks and high notes mingling together into something altogether magical. Trying to peg Howard’s voice is a futile exercise, because while there are traces of Janis Joplin and Robert Plant to be found in it, no comparison would rightly do it justice.
Before Alabama Shakes took over, Kurt Vile and his Violators opened the show. Having seen Vile last fall at the Fillmore, his sound wasn’t negated by the much larger confines of the Greek. Instead, tracks like “Jesus Forever” and “Goldtone” wafted up to the lawn seats and settled in a haze of sunset guitar twang.
Vile is not much for showmanship: He stands barricaded by his guitar and lets the music do the heavy-lifting. There were many at the Greek on Saturday who were clearly unfamiliar with his output, but when he ended his set on the one-two punch of “Pretty Pimpin” and “Freak Train” (which he noted was “special for you” as he had not played it the previous evening), he ensured he left with many more fans in the crowd than he’d started with.
The Greek as a venue is a special place, open-air but lacking the colossal and corporate divide of a place like the Shoreline. One thing that seems to be a ubiquitous element of Greek shows is a biting, chilly wind that never fails to sweep through the theater, despite what the temperature may be. I’ve seen Arcade Fire have to retune their instruments after a particularly blustery gust, but on Saturday night, a mild August warmth was there to stay. Armed with short sleeves and unnecessary blankets, fans were relishing the brief mirage of summer as Alabama Shakes made their entrance.
At this point, I should probably mention that I don’t know the Shakes all that well. Despite their reputation, I’d simply somehow never gotten the chance to really get intimate with either of their studio releases. When I put this show on my calendar, I considered giving myself a Shakes crash course, but then decided that perhaps I should simply enjoy the rare opportunity to hear a critically-revered band fresh, without context, for the first time live on stage. It was an experiment I’d gladly repeat.
With no disrespect intended to the artists with whom she shared the stage, this band could easily be called Brittany Howard and the Alabama Shakes. There were back-up singers, a keyboardist, and assorted others, but front and center was Howard, an imposing figure with a turquoise blue guitar and otherworldly pipes. It took a song or two for the band to find their rhythm, but by the time they got into “Always Alright,” things were cooking. The audience heard one note and began a vociferous clap along, which only served to compel the Shakes to take things to the next level.
When Howard broke into the guttural screams that punctuate “You Ain’t Alone” from 2012’s Boys and Girls
, she no doubt sent a chill down many a spine. For several portions of the evening, Howard put her guitar aside, but with it or without it, all eyes, ears, and hearts were on her.
Alabama Shakes and Kurt Vile collectively turned Saturday night into a deafening argument against anyone who thinks rock and roll is dead or woefully derivative. What these two artists are bringing to the genre is hope and soulful jams, originality and spirit, and perhaps even the power to change the weather.
I Ain't The Same
I Found You
You Ain't Alone
Sound & Color
Gimme All Your Love
Don't Wanna Fight
Over My Head