Newport Folk Festival: Alabama Shakes

Alabama Shakes were probably the most hyped band to step foot on the main stage, Fort, today at Newport Folk Festival. This past year has been nothing but buzz for the band. In fact, it’s really more the past eight months or so. The Alabama natives put out their first EP in November of 2011 and their debut album, Boys & Girls, came out just four months ago. So how is it they landed a spot on the main stage with a massive crowd cheering during their sound check alone? Why talent, of course!

The group were introduced by WERS’s own Program Director Mariel Wade before launching off into their regular opening track, “Goin’ to the Party”. Lasting barely over a minute, the track serves as a tease – it stays relatively calm and downtempo, never boasting singer and guitarist Brittany Howard’s vocals.

“Hold On” came right after, giving the crowd exactly what they were looking for. The radio hit sent goosebumps up and down my arms from the electric energy it sent out into the audience. People were whooping and hollering as Howard let her voice rip out, opening her mouth wider than any other vocalist I’ve seen. Anyone who has seen a live performance of the band – in person or online – knows how filled with soul her vocals are.

As easy as it was to get caught up in Howard’s vocals, equal applause should be given to guitarist Heath Fogg, bassist Zac Cockrell, drummer Steve Johnson, and keyboardist Ben Tanner. They not only held down the fort to balance out her fierce vocals, but they each handled solos without getting carried away. The easiest example of this was when they played “I Found You” and Tanner let out an old-school keyboard solo that fit naturally alongside Howard’s soul-soaked voice.

“I’m gonna play a new song because we’re here at newport,” Howard said with a grin, causing the crowd to laugh. The track featured a bit of surf rock with steady riffs and happy squeals, just like the sounds a baby makes after a parent reveals his or her face from behind closed hands. Hopefully this means they’re on the verge of releasing something new for fans to devour up as quickly as their other works.

Most of their set was spent switching from upbeat tunes to slower jams. No matter the tempo though, Alabama Shakes would all crash together – vocals, guitar, drums, bass, keyboards – into the downbeat of each section, causing the crowd to slam their head down as if crashing, too.

In all honesty though, Brittany’s talent is so refreshing yet surprising that open-mouthed gaping is totally acceptable at their shows. Alabama Shakes have brought a classic sound back to our time and all of Newport was jumping up and down, hands in the air, to show how much they appreciated it. Blues-based rock, something that we’re lacking both in mainstream media and underground, is sure to stay with Alabama Shakes revving things up to stay fresh and biting.

By Nina Corcoran

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