Photo by Dustin Downing
Having left the stage at Coachella still smoldering, Alabama Shakes arrived next in Santa Monica for a special, early-evening appearance on the Apogee Sessions live music series. Presented by radio station KCRW and webcast in real-time from Bob Clearmountain’s Apogee Studio, the hour-long performance before an invitation-only audience served as an album-release party of sorts, with a duo of keyboardists and a trio of harmony singers expanding the quartet to a nine-piece, featuring a set imbued with ten of Sound and Color’s dozen cuts on the eve of the record’s issue. As host, KCRW’s Jason Bentley encouraged the crowd, moments before the band plugged in, to ramp up the energy. He need not worry; Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard had more than enough sizzle for the grateful packed inside and those tuning in from cyberworld.
The dynamic that serves Alabama Shakes best- rising from near silence up to a guitar-driven din- was apparent from the start, opening the show with the tender, but ignitable “Miss You.” From the band’s Boys and Girls debut, “Rise to the Sun” followed, then three from the new one, including a ringing staccato guitar countering Howard’s climb into the upper reaches of her upper-register on “Guess Who.” Fervent blues on “Heartbreaker” was offset by the surf rock suggestions of the punky “The Greatest,” before things got really quiet, as Howard and harmony vocalist Lloyd Buchanan sewed parallel stiches on a graceful “This Feeling.”
Dew-drop notes dripped off of “Gimme All Your Love,” finding Howard at her most expressive, her microphone seeming to hold her captive like a high-voltage current as she swirled. Then, out of the downbeat wash of “On Your Way,” came perhaps the evening’s most ambitious moment. Against wavering electric piano, music-box chimes, and the ominous tones ringing from Heath Fogg’s spaghetti Western riffs, “Gemini” contorted to greet Howard’s gentle pleading in a seductive, swaying Morricone-meets-Memphis mash-up, before the single, “Don’t Wanna Fight,” boxed its way out of the clipped and muted guitar strokes into bursts dirty and direct. The set ended the same as does the album, with the dimmer switch set low on “Over My Head,” in a denouement that, as it had all night, left the lucky gathered at Apogee stunned silent for a pause before releasing their applause.
Alabama Shakes is in a spot right now that so many bands dream to reach. With a sophomore album that exceeds the expectations merited by the band’s enthralling debut, and the extended tentacles of the national press and social media putting a wider public on notice of their talent, this time for the foursome is as much an accomplishment as it is a beginning. Emotionally charged and tightly executed, the Apogee Session was Alabama Shakes having climbed their latest peak, and plenty geared for the next.