LEWISTON – Brittany Howard took it to church on Tuesday.
There’s just no other way to say it. The Alabama Shakes singer took it to church. And she took the sold-out Artpark Mainstage Theatre crowd there with her.
There are not many modern rock bands capable of doing what Howard and her friends did on this night, the final one of the Artpark summer season. Through a combination of astute traditionalism and a thoroughly contemporary conception, the Shakes shook us to our souls.
Theirs is a torrid blend of gospel, classic soul, old school R&B and blues, but none of us could have confused the band with their many contemporaries who seem to be wholly focused on re-creating the past and marketing it as the future. Rather, with Howard at the helm, Alabama Shakes forges something forward-looking that manages to be so without forsaking the past.
No mean feat, this, but from the moment the group took the stage with “Future People,” the first of many tunes from their sophomore effort “Sound & Color” to be played on Tuesday, it was clear that there is a fierce streak of individuality running through the band’s collective bloodstream.
Howard belted a gut-wrenching falsetto to kick off the tune, and the place exploded with appreciation. What followed was a master class in what might be considered 21st-century soul music.
The core Shakes ensemble – Howard on voice and guitar, guitarist Heath Fogg, bassist Zac Cockrell, and drummer Steve Johnson – was joined by a pair of keyboardists and a trio of backing vocalists, all of whom helped to re-create the harmonic and sonic density of the “Sound & Color” material, much of which features Howard’s voice in multitracked harmony.
During “Heartbreaker,” the ensemble revealed its dynamic mastery, moving from a whisper to a scream, and allowing for the sort of organic flow of emotion that is common to Baptist church services.
With just as much dexterity, the Shakes could suggest a take on modern alternative rock with psychedelic overtones, as they did on the aptly named “Shoegaze,” a dreamy tune that exploded into full-on gospel fervor as Howard moved into the song’s stirring chorus.
“Miss You” revealed the band’s deep familiarity with Motown and Stax soul tropes, but again, the interplay between the guitars of Howard and Fogg, and the light-shade dynamic manipulation suggested something nigh on wholly unique.
“Dunes” was another highlight, as Howard invested the entirety of her towering voice in the song’s “I’m losing it” refrain, as the group moved through the stirring cadences behind her.
If you couldn’t feel Howard’s soul as it came cranking through the PA, you must not have been paying attention. This was incredibly powerful stuff.
The interplay between the guitars, the subtle power exhibited by the rhythm section, the raw power of the backing vocalists, and the richly layered but unobtrusive keyboard parts – all contributed to the power of the performance. But it was Howard who drove it home, her incredibly agile and powerful voice demanding the listener’s attention, and lending an aspect of spiritual yearning to what otherwise might have been just another rock show.
Yep. She took it to church.