Live Review: Alabama Shakes at Marymoor Park 8/8

Live Reviews
Jacob Webb
photo by Matthew B. Thompson (view set)

At the end of Alabama Shakes' set at Marymoor Park, there was a conspicuous absence: their biggest hit. "Hold On" just isn't the song that introduced the band to a wider audience, it's still one of their greatest moments. On paper, its omission is bewilidering to say the least. (Hell, even the notoriously mercurial Isaac Brock leads Modest Mouse through "Float On" nine shows out of ten.) A near-perfect build-up and climax of the band's languid R&B rhythm and Brittany Howard's (insert-force-of-nature-implying-adjective-here) voice, "Hold On" encapsulated Alabama Shakes's strengths into three minutes and forty six striking seconds. Except, it doesn't anymore. When Alabama Shakes came out of the studio with the followup to their wildly successful debut, Boys & Girls, no one was expecting a studio-heavy, textural affair that took Howard's voice and the band's performance through a kaleidoscopic filter. But that's what Alabama Shakes brought out, and even though Sound & Color is a studio-heavy affair, its songs translate fantastically live, making their appearance at Marymoor an entrancing, explosive trip into the Alabama group's unexpected left turn.

While they're still a booming, R&B-channeling beast of rock-and-soul music, Alabama Shakes don't seem inextricably tied to the same musical elements that they cut their teeth on. They can still hold a groove like nobody's business, rock out at the peak of a tension-building rave up, and, if all else fails, Howard's voice could still carry the band (and then some) if they were having an off night. Fortunately, they weren't, and in fine, mid-tour form, Alabama Shakes sounded like a heavier version of the feel of Sound & Color: thick, loose, and blown up or in (depending on the song) through a carefully-chosen sonic filter. This was, at least in part, because the night's setlist was primarily comprised of Sound & Color. But if those songs sound like meticulously constructed R&B songs that were assembled and executed by a group of Muscle Shoals pros, it was the latter part of that sentence that underscored the band's performance. Boosted by an expanded lineup (complete with a set of backing singers), the band traded (some of) Sound & Color's clockwork nuance for sheer volume firepower, and it was a flying success. The thrusts on "Gimme All Your Love": louder and funkier. The sinewy rhythm of "Don't Wanna Fight": as sleek and silver as it was slicing. The wall-of-sound harmonies from "Future People": immaculate, and cleverly applied to most of the other songs that night. If a song from the Alabama Shakes could gotten bigger in a live setting, the band took it there, and then a little further. It's commendable just how much texture each performance had – with much credit to Howard and Heath Fogg's guitar playing, which rode complementary rhythms all night – without sacrificing the unbashed power that made their debut so great. Sound & Color is a record that asks to be dissected, revealing something new each time, but Boys & Girls was a record that was easy to sing along and jam out to, and Alabama Shakes clearly haven't lost that sensibility along the way.

It's important to note that Alabama Shakes didn't have to go weird for their sophomore outing. They could've doubled down on the success of Boys & Girls and easily pumped out another LP in the same vein, and if it had at least one decent single, it likely would've sold just as many copies as Sound & Color (which debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200) and still turned them into festival subheadliners and shed-fillers. And, to be fair, no one would have held it against them. But they didn't, which puts them in the increasingly shrinking group of bands that are both commercially successful and critically acclaimed. But within the current wave of bands (Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Vampire Weekend) that seem to be headed towards the Winners' History of Rock and Roll, Alabama Shakes don't have any real counterparts. Maybe if Tame Impala's Kevin Parker had opted to head back to the Marshall stacks instead of the dancefloor on Currents, Tame Impala would be in the same lane as Alabama Shakes' de- and -reconstructed R&B rock would have a contrast, but as they showed on that Saturday night, they're a rock band through and through, albeit one that seems more interested in breaking down than refining the tropes that they mined from for so long, and that quality is what made them - only two albums and four years into their career, at that – nothing short of victorious at Marymoor.

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