Concert First: Alabama Shakes

While I’ve called New York home the past five years, my roots are in the South – and especially my musical roots.

So it’s little surprise that an act that shares its moniker with my home state would at least pique my curiosity.

The Alabama Shakes first slipped into my skull through a NPR mention or New York Times endorsement from their remarkable CMJ Marathon debut last fall. Impressed that they were actually from “The Heart of Dixie,” I almost immediately had to figure out where Athens, Ala., was on the map. Turns out the Highway 65 stopover isn’t far from the Tennessee border and at the opposite end of the state from my hometown down LA (“Lower Alabama”) way.

But thankfully the showers of praise for this southern rock ‘n’ soul act were instantly validated with the first listen of the powerful “Hold On” and their first Bandcamp EP and eventually the full album, Boys and Girls this spring.

Lead singer Brittany Howard’s passionate vocals, backed by a mix of classic rock, swamp boogie and Muscle Shoals soul made for a perfect combination for my ears.

I tracked the Shakes online through webcasts as nearly every tour stop since last year was sold out. So word in late April that they would make a stop in Syracuse this summer was a shocker – one that had me rubbing my eyes in astonishment to be certain I had read it correctly.

Finally July 29 arrived and my wife and I set out with friends for Paper Mill Island, an outdoor amphitheater in downtown Baldwinsville. We passed opening act opener Simon Felice on his way back to his van before catching Jonny Corndawg’s honkytonk rawk.

As the sun slipped closer to the horizon, Brittany and Co. took the stage to rip through “Goin’ To The Party,” “Hold On” and personal fave, the Hawaiian fantasy, “Hang Loose.” Brittany belted, the combo of Zac Cockrell (bass), Heath Fogg (guitar), Steve Johnson (drums) and Styrofoam Jones (keyboardist) grooved and the lovefest with their fans was in motion.

Throughout the 90-minute set, Brittany’s consistently pegged resemblance to Janis Joplin was uncanny with her commanding voice and stage presence that was purely captivating.

It wasn’t until the second and final encore that Brittany swapped Joplin for a little James Brown to strut through a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “How Many More Times.”

The reverence of Alabama Shakes is purely deserved. In merely three years – light speed for the rock music industry – the band is on the brink of breaking out from breakout mode. A national TV appearance or two on a show such as the Grammys should elevate them to the likes of Mumford and Sons, which are selling out amphitheaters this summer.

And I along with about a thousand others will be happy for them, likely longing for that incredible summer night here in the Upstate when we had the Alabama Shakes all to ourselves.

- Jon