Alabama Shakes is a band that seemingly came out of nowhere in 2012. And in a span of eight months, things have most definitely changed in a great way. Their debut album, Boys & Girls, garnered tons of critical acclaim and marked only the beginning of their rise. It led to national radio air-play, appearances on the late night circuit (most recently on Jimmy Kimmel Live), playing numerous festivals, and going on their first-ever headlining tour. On Wednesday night, they brought their blues-infused rock and roll to the Fox Theater in Pomona in support of their album.
The opener for the night was the Brooklyn-based Afrobeat collective, Antibalas and they immediately got the crowd hot, like red hot. Each of the 12 members held an array of instruments – from a tenor and baritone saxophone to congas and a shekere – that displayed an all-out fun time. As I stood in the pit, I noticed practically everyone around me moving. What made it even more incredible was that Antibalas went over their allotted 35 minute set to the point where the in-house sound crew cut off their sound, yet they kept on playing and the crowd cheered even louder. Based on the overhearing the people around me, they didn’t want them to stop. It was definitely something unusual and unexpected from an opening act, but if you can get the crowd riled up like that, then please don’t stop.
Having had the pleasure of going to a lot of memorable shows this year, Alabama Shakes may be right at the top (along with Sigur Ros at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery). Right from the very first note that they played, it was a tremendous set filled with pure energy and raw, genuine emotion sprouting from frenzied frontwoman Brittany Howard. And when listening to Southern rock bands, you wouldn’t expect anything less.
They opened their set with the short-yet-sweet “Goin’ to the Party” before going into back to back hits with “Hang Loose” and “Hold On.” Immediately, you can hear the stark contrast between their songs on record and their live performance, mainly how bone-chilling Howard’s vocals are in person. Her howls come off as natural and seamless; a tour de force almost. While the rest of the band seemed unfazed by Howard, the crowd was blown away. On “Hang Loose,” they sang word for word, nearly reveling in the song’s message about letting go of all the worries, while on “Hold On,” you can actually feel Howard sing about a time in her past where she needed to persevere.
“Heartbreaker” and “Boys & Girls” slowed down the pace, showcasing Howard at her most soulful and emotional. On the former, she wailed out “how was I supposed to know he was a heartbreaker” that brought out goosebumps to those watching because of how pitch-perfect she sang her highs. On the latter, Howard provided an anecdote explaining when she was a little girl, people would criticize her friendship with a little boy. She responded with a resounding “that’s some bullshit,” much to the delight of the crowd.
“You Ain’t Alone” was one of the highlights of the night, stirring up moments of romance and intimacy. Throughout the song, most couples in the crowd held onto each other while singing along to the chorus. At one point, as the instruments faded down to silence, the crowd singing along with Howard on the lines “you ain’t alone/just let me be your ticket home” produced a choir-like effect that reverberated throughout the venue, mesmerizing a certain writer (along with many others).
When the band exited after the final song, the crowd didn’t go the conventional route when calling back the band for an encore. Instead of the usual chants of “encore” or “one more song,” the crowd took advantage of the venue’s hardwood floors and began stomping on them furiously until they came back out. For their two song encore, Alabama Shakes brought out a few friends from Antibalas’ brass section (who also played earlier in their set on songs such as “Rise to the Sun” and a few new ones). And together, they played riveting renditions of “I Ain’t the Same” and the fast-paced and frenetic “Heavy Chevy.”
At the end of the night, Alabama Shakes put on one of the more breathtaking sets that I’ve seen since I saw the Black Keys last year. They captivated the crowd through sheer talent, passion, energy, emotion, and honesty. And what more can you ask for when going to a live concert? What’s even more impressive is that they’ve been able to put up this kind of performance in such a short amount of time, leaving their future to look intensely bright. As I walked out, the girl behind me said it best when describing how watching and listening to Howard made her feel: “she makes me feel nothing and everything at once.”