I was exhausted by the end of their set. The type of exhaustion brought upon by an extended screaming match with a lover, when a sweetheart lays everything on the table and doesn’t allow a peep of defense. On this particular night, the emotional sparring-partner for myself and the sold-out Capitol Theater of Port Chester would be Brittany Howard of The Alabama Shakes; we didn’t have a chance against her.
Howard commanded the room with her vulnerable, yet ferocious belting. She would stand flat-footed center stage and stare out somewhere high above the crowd in the darkness, as if she was addressing the ghosts of past wrongdoers. It was the glare of Medusa, having the power to freeze anyone in it’s path to stone. On songs like “Be Mine,” she warns us, “if they wanna fight/ they done started fucking with the wrong heart.” And we believe her. Though the twang of the guitars are familiar, it is the raw emotion which feels so fresh in this age of techno computer bleeps and megalomaniac rap moguls.
Howard makes one feel that life doesn’t always have the happy endings like Silver Linings Playbook, in which their song “Always Alright” trots along in an appearance. Howard realizes it’s full of unnecessary heartbreaks and unjustified wounds. Yet, as whimpering as her voice might get, it never becomes devoid of hope. The heart will mend and the wounds will heal. She’s our helping hand through trouble in “You Ain’t Alone,” when she sings “cry if you gonna cry, come on, cry wit me.” We trust her. She sounds like she’s been here before.
One sensed a presence in the room, almost like the Delphian entity of deja-vu. I’m willing to bet that it’s from the fact that Janis Joplin held this same stage forty-three years ago. Many have compared Howard to the tortured diva of the summer of love, and it’s easy to see why: few people can turn the cracking timbre of a wail into something more beautiful than a polished version of the same piece. There is a fragility with both women that Meryl Streep couldn’t even begin to replicate. That same vulnerability took Joplin from us at the tender age of twenty-seven. But at the age of twenty-fear, it seems Howard is not leaving us anytime soon. Don’t mistake her delicacy for Joplin’s insecurities; Howard grounds herself on the same two feet as another Sixty idol, Aretha Franklin. Her words demand power, bringing to mind that ultimatum for “Respect” from the Queen in ‘65. Don’t believe me? Witness an entire theater sing along to the chorus of the future rock anthem (if not already) “Hold On.” You’ll see men and women of all shapes and sizes, losing themselves in a moment of transcendental reassurance. Not bad for Howard, who was delivering mail for the postal service a little more than two years ago. It seems delivering hope to fans suits her much better.
And that passionate makeup sex which follows these battles of words, and is usually just as strenuous? Howard didn’t make us wait with this one, as she released those seething buildups into orgiastic high notes and feet stomping accelerations. Come the last song, I was ready to say “good night honey,” turn to the other side of the bed and flip the lights; and ready to drift asleep with the best kind of weariness there is.
– Dylan Brown