Brittany Howard, the lead singer of Alabama Shakes is so much of a powerhouse it’s hard to believe she’s only 27 years old. Born and raised in Athens, Alabama, a small town with just over 20,000 people, the singer has come a long way from her humble beginnings as a postal service worker.
Howard, who attributes her musical influence to David Bowie and Led Zepplin, started singing while in middle school. There she met bandmate and guitarist Heath Fogg, who was a few years older than her and played at house-parties. She later met bassist Zac Cockrell in high school and drummer Steve Johnson at a jam session she held at her home. They formed their southern rock and blues band in 2009 and originally called themselves “The Shakes.”
Now after 3 Grammy wins for Best Alternative Music Award, Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance, many are starting to take notice of the band’s success. During their spring tour the band stopped at Ybor City’s Cuban Club on April 29th. They performed to a sold-out crowd of about 3000 people in the club’s parking lot, even with megastar Beyoncé’s concert just a few miles away at the Raymond James Stadium and a day before WMNF’s Tropical Heatwave festival.
It was a mixed crowd full of millennials, hipsters, and their parents, dancing and singing along in the booze and smoke-filled air.The band last came to the Tampa Bay area in 2013 when they performed at Jannus Live in St. Petersburg. Howard acknowledged this later on during the concert, “Every time we come down here the crowd gets bigger and bigger,” she said in her southern drawl as the crowd cheered on. “ I want to let you know we really appreciate y’all. When we started this band, you know, we wanted to have some fun and write some songs we like. Now look at this, all y’all come out here…”
The band opened with “Dunes” from their latest album Sound & Color and the crowd immediately started singing along. Howard wore a no frills black layered dress with stockings, black boots and red glasses falling down her nose, while belting out each song redolent of her rock and blues predecessors Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Otis Redding. She sashayed up and down the stage playing her teal Gibson guitar as concertgoers sang along and danced in the crowd.
The concert was reminiscent of a southern church revival, sending chills up the spine, with Howard’s voice demanding attention during songs like “Always Alright”- with it’s upbeat bluegrass feel, “Heartbreaker,” “Gimme All Your Love”-causing Howard to pause as the crowd started to applause her in the middle of the song and “Hang Loose.”
The rest of the 17 songs performed included a mixture from both albums Boys & Girls and Sound & Color, featuring other songs like “Rise to the Sun,” “Hold on,” Grammy winning ” Don’t wanna fight,” and “Future People.”
At times the band slowed it down a bit, with Howard putting her guitar aside to intimately serenade the audience while performing songs like “Be Mine,””You ain’t alone,”-showing Howard’s vulnerability with her asking ,”Are you afraid to tell somebody how you feel about somebody?..cry, if you gonna cry come on, cry wit me;” “Gemini”-an electric guitar ridden, psychedelic ballad and “Sound & Color,”-the title track to the band’s latest album that was also featured in Apple’s iPad Pro ad last year.
The band closed the show with “Over my Head,”putting the crowd in a trance, while onlookers stopped on nearby sidewalks and sat on the stairs and roof of the adjacent parking garage and club next door to listen in.
Before leaving the stage, Howard assured the crowd, “This ain’t goodbye. This is see you after while.”
We sure hope so, Ms. Howard. See you soon.