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Lots of people compare Brittany Howard, the lead singer of the magnesium-hot Athens, Alabama band Alabama Shakes, to Janis Joplin, but as someone who actually saw Joplin live — at Seattle’s baseball stadium on July 5, 1970 — I liked Howard’s performance at the band’s sold-out Troubadour debut Jan. 25 better.
Both boasted vocals that soared unexpectedly from sandpaper-coarse gutturals to the uppermost of the singer’s range and just beyond, flitting quick as a hummingbird from earthy passion to breathy poignance. Both screamed on key. When Howard belted lines like “you make me feel so good” or “come on baby, cry with me,” she was almost channeling Joplin.
To boot, Howard’s band — guitarist Heath Fogg, bassist Zac Cockrell, keyboardist Ben Tanner, and drummer Steve Johnson — are so knowingly retro they sometimes reminded me of Joplin’s opening act, Pacific Gas & Electric, but more of The Band. Cockrell stole Garth Hudson’s beard, and the bass line of “Heavy Chevy” is quite like 1969’s “The Ballad of John and Yoko.”
Joplin’s voice and gestures were bigger than Howard’s, but also more scarred, heroin-thinned, and self-conscious — a hot-mama identity like a costume she donned. Her bandmate Sam Andrew told me years later that Joplin tried on other personas for fun — flawless impressions of Barbra Streisand and Joan Baez. Fame was no fun, so she kind of made fun of it.
For Howard, fame was clearly and infectiously fun. When she sang in the wonderfully rousing anthem “Ain’t the Same,” “I’m not who I used to be,” she was maybe thinking of how she used to be six months ago — a postal worker fleeing from bees and mean dogs. Now her band is hounded by the press, because it’s been some time since anybody emerged who sounds so new and so old at the same time — perhaps with the exception of the genre-defiant Cee-Lo. When she flung her head back in ecstasy at the end of one number (and everybody in the audience seemed pretty much in ecstasy) Howard was reminiscent of small-town girl Natalie Merchant’s triumphant expression at her 1987 Lone Star breakout show.
Like Joplin, Howard is keenly aware of her historical models, flaunting her influences as proudly as her star-spangled scarf. “Are you scared to wear your heart out on your sleeve?” she sang in “You Ain’t Alone.” She ain’t scared. On “Hold On,” the first song from the band’s intensely awaited April 10 full-length debut album Boys & Girls (ATO), when she sings, “Bless my heart, bless my soul, didn’t think I’d make it to 22 years old,” she sounds like somebody Alan Lomax discovered in 1937: “Bleth mah haht, bleth mah soul.” She spits a bit when she sings, and got no objections — it conveyed urgency. And her guitar style was impressive: the quick strumming riff on “Heavy Chevy” nods to “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” and in general, she plays a little bit punky with a whole lot of soul. Her guitar blends with the guys’ in big, simple, chugging grooves just perfect for her lyrics to find a comfy roost in.
Howard’s Portlandia-ish look is both theatrical and defiantly unlike, say, Taylor Swift’s glamour-mongering. She is like the honey badger in that Howard doesn’t care — she can wear anything she damn well wants and look cool, even Lisa Loeb-like glasses.
Howard also has a gift for the stage. Standing in the sweat drenched floor of the Troubadour, where Elton John, Neil Diamond and James Taylor were staples in the 1970s, it felt as if she was singing directly to you. In fact, she asked one guy, “What’s your name?” and serenaded him. When she got to a sweet chorus like the thrilling high refrain “ooh-ooh-ooh” on “Heat Lightning,” she used her hands to conduct the room in singing along, pointing, pouting and shouting like a Pentacostal preacher. Similarly embodying the song “Sheet Lightning,” when she sang, “I felt like my hand started trembling,” Howard’s hand trembled skillfully.
Like Joplin in 1970, Howard is assembling a persona with great intelligence and forethought, diving into the wreck of music history and coming up with treasures we can use. The difference is, Brittany Howard is on the way up. Fast.
I Found You
Boys and Girls
Rise to the Sun
You Ain’t Alone
Ain’t the Same
On Your Way
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