Eight years on from the release of Alabama Shakes’ debut album Girls & Boys – a record that brought the incredible talent that is Brittany Howard into the mainstream – the Athens (AL) born artist is currently amidst a UK & European tour in support of her 2019 solo LP, Jaime.
The album, released to much-acclaim last September, is titled after Howard’s sister, who taught her to play the piano and write poetry, and who died of cancer when they were still teenagers. It is a record filled with soul, funk, Southern rock, RnB and of course, Howard’s insanely-impressive vocals, which wrap around a range of deeply emotional lyrics. At one moment Howard is melancholic and sweet, and in another, she is ripping the chains off in a gut-busting, gospel-esque cry from the rafters.
Tonight in Manchester, we were certainly taken to church, as Howard walked onto rapturous applause, dressed in a gold, James Brown-like cape and backed by a ludicrously tight and talented 8-piece backing band. It was clear that Howard was delighted to be back on stage delivering her own material, and at one time pretty much confessed this to us all.
The setlist covered the majority of Howard’s solo album, kicking off with the glorious ‘He Loves Me’, which gave us our first glimpse of her sensational guitar skills, before heading tightly into the exceptional ‘Georgia’. From here, the shackles were off. It is barmy how good Brittany Howard’s vocals are, and watching her belt them out with such little effort was truly a spectacle in itself. But the energy that she brought to the show in addition was really the icing on the cake. She swirled, she rocked out, she threw her arms to the ceiling and praised some greater being, before picking up the guitar and thrashing out another awesome lick. It was a sight to behold and the crowd were wild for it.
Fan favourite ‘Stay High’ received an overwhelming response, as did a beautiful acoustic moment for ‘Short And Sweet’, which Howard delivered solo under a golden spotlight. The Gill Scott-Heron-esque ’13th Century Metal’ was spectacular as Howard launched herself around the stage in her own little funk, exclaiming “We are all brothers & sisters!”, which was matched only by the stunning chaos that was ‘Tomorrow’ and the glorious set-closer ‘History Repeats’.
And throughout this sublime set? Just the three covers thank you very much. Which songs you may ask? Well let’s kick off with an incredible take on Prince’s ‘The Breakdown’ shall we! And then let’s throw in a majestic mash-up of The Beatles’ ‘Revolution’ for fun. And the third? Well just imagine Brittany Howard’s out-of-this-world vocals wrapped around Jackie Wilson’s ‘(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher’….mmhmmm!
Tonight was a lesson in craftsmanship. From each and every musician behind the frontwoman, to the two exceptional backing singers, even down to the perfectly-timed stage lighting. And of course, the Reverend herself, Ms. Brittany Howard. Not even a sniff of an Alabama Shakes song was offered throughout the night, but did anyone care? Of course not. I have not heard a response to a headline act like that for a long-time, and boy did she deserve every clap, whistle, whoop and holla that came her way in Manchester this evening. Church is back in session and we are Howard’s dedicated congregation!