Alabama Shakes

Alabama Shakes EP

Alabama Shakes, Part 1
(Editor’s note: I’m so excited about last night’s Alabama Shakes show that I’m splitting my reaction up into two parts, one offering a macro view of the experience, and one that gives a little more detail. Hope you enjoy!)

“Don’t know much about history
Don’t know much biology
Don’t know much about a science book
Don’t know much about the french I took
But I do know that I love you”
— Sam Cooke

Over the course of 28 years, I’ve become an expert at certain things. Choosing which tunnel to use when traveling from Richmond to Norfolk is one. Choosing non-mealy apples at the grocery store is another. And I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I consider myself the Michael Jordan of choosing the wrong checkout lane at Costco. Soul music, however, is not one of my (apologies to John Hodgman) areas of expertise. Soul is such an influential, historically rich and culturally significant force that I’ve always approached it with a sense of cautious reverence. And while I’m somewhat familiar with greats like Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke and Mavis Staples, it’s always seemed like a broader understanding of the genre’s history and icons is just too steep a hill to climb, and that I’m destined to remain on the outside looking in. Lately though, a number of bands that have caught my attention are making it more and more difficult to stay on the soul music sidelines. Last night, I had the pleasure of seeing one of these bands in person, a group called Alabama Shakes. I’d been hearing this 5-piece outfit’s name everywhere, often lumped in with the present wave of so-called soul revivalists, so I came to the Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville, VA prepared to find out firsthand where they stood within this movement. But as they worked their way through a powerful, confident and wildly entertaining set, it became clear that they weren’t reviving anything. What I saw felt like an authentic act of creation, not one of imitation or recreation. It felt like something totally new. Maybe I’m inclined to think this way because I lack the baseline of knowledge to make proper comparisons, but to say that frontwoman-extraoridnairre Brittany Howard has pipes like Aretha, or a 5th gear like Janis Joplin, or moo-oo-oo-OO-OO-ooves like Jagger (sorry, I really tried to stop myself from typing that) would, as accurate and complimentary as those comparisons might be, situate Alabama Shakes in the past, which is not where they belong. Sure, you can call them neo-soul, or something like that, but it really doesn’t matter, because you don’t need to be a soul savant, or an expert in musical taxonomy, to enjoy Alabama Shakes. And the proof was standing all around me last night. The crowd was as diverse as I’ve seen — black, white, young, old, hip, unhip — and while that could be a side effect of being relatively new and not having been pigeonholed yet, I’d like to think it’s because there’s so much to enjoy in their music that almost everyone can connect with it. See what I mean by listening below to “Hold On,” the first track off their eponymous EP, which you can snag here.

Alabama Shakes — “Hold On


What do the mountains of northeastern Afghanistan and proggy math rock have in common? For starters, they’re both wild places where seemingly anything can happen. They’re also both extremely rocky (sorry, I had to). Most importantly, they share an essential quality that largely defines them: inaccessibility. Just as the Korangal Valley in Afghanistan wouldn’t be so wild if it wasn’t a remote, mountainous deathtrap for invading armies, experimental rock wouldn’t be experimental if it didn’t push the envelope of what is conventionally considered possible and palatable. Avid enthusiasts of complex, time signature-shredding music may say, “Hell yeah! That’s the best part!”, but for bands who aim to make a good living playing this type of music, it seems like a tough line to walk. How do you keep pushing the envelope without pushing people away? How???

I had the pleasure of seeing that question asked and successfully answered when Battles performed at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. this past Sunday night. Battles is a very special band, boasting outsized doses of creativity, musicianship and precision, as well as one of the best drummers I’ve ever seen (please put seeing John Stanier in person on your musical bucket list — he’s nothing short of otherworldly), all of which help them construct songs that are unique and intellectually challenging. Think musical abstract (but not too abstract) painting. But throughout Sunday’s show, it became more and more evident that the band has a special knack for connecting with their audience, as well.

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Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings

I Learned the Hard Way

There are a zillion reasons to go to a concert. Maybe your favorite band is coming to town and you can’t stand the thought of missing it, or maybe you’re curious how a group’s sample-driven electro-pop sounds live. Or maybe your friend grabbed an extra ticket because “Dude no one else wants to go and you still owe me for the time I was wingman and that girl’s friend puked couscous all over my Ed Hardy T! LEBANESE AND FERRIS WHEELS DON’T MIX BRO!!” Whether it’s about the people we go with or the music we experience once we’re there, I think concert goers are all looking for a the same thing — a connection — and good lord did I ever find one this past Friday when I saw Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. My friends Tex and Clay raved about her when they saw her last, and since they were out of town and couldn’t make it, I spent half the show thanking them via text for recommending her. She was dazzling. She wore a sparkling black and white dress and danced non-stop, in spite of the 90-plus-degree heat, but what stood out most wasn’t her bottomless energy or her spectacular voice, it was how she made it feel like she was singing directly to you. She pulled people on stage, sang happy birthday to a lucky fan and every once in a while, looked out and blinked her eyes flirtatiously, knocking us off our feet and drawing us closer simultaneously. She pulled us in even further by sharing the story behind each of the group’s soul songs, complete with a moral to apply to everyday life. My favorite was “Window Shopping,” which is about only having eyes for one person [insert sexy blinking here]. Preview it below, and grab their album I Learned the Hard Way here. And if you ever have the chance to see Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, don’t forget your dancing shoes! I’m serious — she might pull you on stage, and you’re gonna need them to keep up.