Remember the Andre Agassi “Image is everything” commercials? You heard about the whole wig thing, right? Isn’t it wild that he would do a commercial about image being essential when, any moment, a poorly placed opposing serve could have dislodged the image he’d marketed so lucratively? It’s either the most or least ironic thing that’s ever happened, but either way it’s definitely sad. Sadder is the fact that he lost the French Open final that year because he was concerned that his locks would come loose. He said of that match, “During the warming-up training before play I prayed. Not for victory, but that my hairpiece would not fall off.” It takes a big man to admit this kinda thing, especially when he totally got away with it, and it teaches a powerful lesson: Fake stuff is distracting. When you’re thinking about what people are thinking about you it’s difficult to reach the state of mindlessness in which athletes (POORLY VEILED PREMISE ALERT) and musicians really thrive. Authenticity, on the other hand, offers freedom. It’s an invitation to dive deeper. Authenticity is the red pill from The Matrix. And that’s exactly what the Alabama Shakes were dispensing this past Tuesday at the Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville, VA (Note to the VA law enforcement community: At no point did an Alabama Shakes band member actually dispense pharmaceutical drugs or smuggle audience members into a post-apocalyptic computer world). After a fantastic set from Richmond’s Black Girls, the Shakes took the stage for the very first time in the Old Dominion, or “Virginny” as frontwoman Brittany Howard put it, and set about showing us the genuine joy that can be found in live performance when you let go, lose yourself (apologies to Mr. Mathers) and pour out your heart and soul — with an emphasis on the “soul.” I wrote yesterday about how the Alabama Shakes shouldn’t be called “soul revivalists” because it feels more like they’re creating than recreating, but you could hear the genre’s influence throughout their show. You could also hear healthy doses of rockabilly, blues, R&B and a ton of rock n roll. In truth, more than anything else, it really did feel like a rock show, with Howard’s emotional energy leading the way. Howard’s voice was packed full of expression and soulfulness, but there’s a whole other gear there (soul overdrive?) that she used to soar over blasting choruses full of ringing cymbals and electric guitars being strummed mercilessly. Along with Howard’s voice, I was particularly struck by the relationship between these two guitars, a bright-sounding hollow body Epiphone plucked by the co-lead guitarist and backup singer and a cool-sounding SG piloted by Howard herself. The tones of the two instruments couldn’t have been more complementary, and the same was true for the players, who traded rhythm and lead roles — the Epiphone providing driving riffs and lead flourishes and Howard’s SG adding rhythmic punctuation before tearing through frenzied solos that channeled the same emotion her voice conveyed so powerfully all night long. To see that kind of passion on display as she’s singing about wearing your heart out on your sleeve in a song like “You Ain’t Alone” represents a perfect marriage of message and messenger, and that authenticity made it easy for me to lose myself in the Alabama Shakes on Tuesday night. If you have the chance to see them, do not pass go, do not collect $200, just GO. Until then, you can check out the video above of “You Ain’t Alone,” listen to the studio version below, and pick up their EP here.
The Alabama Shakes — “You Ain’t Alone“