Of all the breakout sets at this year's Lollapalooza (Frank Ocean's major league ascension, Florence and the Machine's arrival, Black Sabbath's near-certain swan song), Alabama Shakes was the biggest one yetnot for what they did onstage but for the fact that mother nature prevented them from getting on it in the first place. Getting rained out only intensified the buzz surrounding the band, turning them into one of two of this year's "it" bands. (The other is fun.)
If comparisons of vocalist Brittany Howard to Janis Joplin pervade cyberspace, that can be expectedalthough not trusted. Alabama Shakes and its full debut (Boys and Girls, ATO Records) is an explosive, unpretentious, raw distillation of hard rock, soul, country, garage, roots and blues that's so potent that all you can do is stand there and react. It's also the kind of unfussy passionate music that makes neo-soul, processed country, and radio-aimed pop sound ridiculously trite. Boys and Girls is music for grown-ups.
What makes the group such a revelation is not only their youth (the band met three years ago while in school) or that they came from nowhere (well, Athens, Ala.), but by self-producing Boys and Girls with an analog system, the band has managed to make something so new and riveting that it defies convention. Howard's voice has the intensity of LaBelle on fire and the delicacy of Minnie Riperton in rapture, but the band is really about its individual components and the resulting chemistry. On every song from beginning to end Zack Cockrell's bass (fleet and precise), Steve Johnson's drums (hard and crisp) and Heath Fogg's guitar (lacerating and jangly) make up a distinctive and cohesive whole. The sound of Alabama Shakes is almost as instantly recognizable as Tom Petty's Heartbreakers, the '70s-era Rolling Stones, Scotland's Big Country or, dare I say it, Boston's The Cars.
Better still is Alabama Shakes' genre-unspecific sound. Yeah, the band's rock and blues alright, but with the crystal-clear twang of whiskey-drenched roots/country, the lyrical passion of deep Southern soul and the hard edge of delta blues. The opener, "Hold On"with its wall of circling jangly guitars and Howard's jagged banshee wail soundsalmost abrasive at first. But after hearing it a second time, it's obvious that the band has found the key to isolating the key facets of several forms of popular music and fusing it into a whole. "I Ain't the Same" is almost too big, with those guitars swooping in like a fleet of B-52s and Howard getting consumed in the lyrics. But what makes it click is how the bass, drums and guitars are pushed up frontright next to her voice, within the crystal-clear mix. The band may wallow in a jagged hard style but the sonic clarity cuts like a scalpel.
So could the show at The Riviera possibly live up to all the buzz and the album? Well, do bears shit in the woods? With just the four of them onstage with no frills or distractions (with the unfortunate exception of some guy running around in a gorilla suit for a single song), Alabama Shakes kept stopping the show and topping itself. "Be Mine," with its savage guitars and Howard lost in a trance, put the house in shock. When she asked, "Are you scared to wear your heart on your sleeve?" during the measured slow-cooker "You Ain't Alone," it almost came as an elongated punch line that the song kept building to a deceptively powerful climax. "Heavy Chevy" may have been a throwaway rocker, but it was so hard, so fast and so brutal that, yes, this sold-out crowd couldn't ask for a second encore.
It's a bit strange in 2012 to witness the co-mingling of rap/hip-hop artists and old fashioned celebrity. When rap hit in the early '80s, it was loved and hated for what it was: straight-up music of the street. Sure, there was cute safe Will Smith blabbing on and on about how "Parents just don't Understand," but you also had N.W.A.'s "Straight Outta Compton" and Public Enemy's "Fight the Power." This was confrontational music blatantly reflecting and projecting the rage that an underprivileged segment of America's population felt making the conservative (white) middle class, well, uncomfortable. Now so many rap/hip-hop artists have become "stars" and it's hard to think of them as "dangerous" or that they could possibly offend anyone. The idea of Snoop Dogg turning up in Sacha Baron Cohen's Bruno, Queen Latifah trading barbs with Dolly Parton (A Joyful Noise) or LL Cool J cracking wise in a killer-shark movie (The Deep Blue Sea) has become commonplace, while these new images actually obscure the artists' roots.
Of the whole rap generation, only Common (aka Common Sense and Ronnie Rashid Lynn Jr.) seems to have managed to have it both ways. Not only does he pop up in movies consistently (Wanted, American Gangster, Smokin' Aces), appear in multi-million dollar ad campaigns (The Gap, Zune, and Blackberry) and have his first memoir out (One Day it will all make Sense) but his HBO show, Hell on Wheels, is well into its second season. With all that going on he still manages to piss people off: the White House controversy, the feud with Westside Connection (eventually quashed by the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, of all people), some snippy repartee with Fox News and the Republican Party (Common brushed that off by retorting, "I guess Sarah Palin and Fox News don't like me..."), and that controversy over his quoting Maya Angelou.
Out of all that, it's obvious that the first thing that separates Common from his contemporaries is that the music remains front and center; he's still considered a hip-hop artist first and a celebrity second.
This brings us to Common's SRO show at The Venue a week ago. If the openers, "Celebrate" and "Get 'em Up," started the show with an explosive bang, with him bouncing and leaping like a top, you were right to assume that this was going to be an empty-headed ass-shaking jam. But being that this is Common, you should have know when you walked in that it would be a thought-provoking, ass-shaking jam.
The second thing that separates Common from his peers is his engagement with the world, cultivating a far larger perspective than just a view from his neighborhood. None of that stopped him from celebrating his Chicago roots (yes, there were shout outs to the North, South and West sides ... ho-hum) or occasionally getting goofy (inviting a female member of the audience on stage to sing "Drivin' me Wild" to her or breaking into a fit of break-dancing), but when he got into heavier topics he was adept at dovetailing the party vibe into something akin to an urban hymn. "Finding Forever," which was pointed at and dedicated to all the children who had become victims of violence, stuck not so much because of its low-key edge but because Common was not only sincere but 100-percent engaged in the message. "Testify," about a good man done wrong by an evil woman, may have seemed like a put-on but it allowed him to get to his point, which was the lack of justice in the world.
In the ass-shaking department, the show went off the rails with "Clique Freestyle," which was all bass lines, percussion and Common ripping through the English language like vengeance personified. But that, "Universal Mind Control" and "I Used to Love H.E.R." weren't merely fueled by Common himself. This crowd stayed on their feet for the entire show and spat the words back at him, creating a reciprocal volley and taking the energy to an extreme level. This was hardly a show where you sat and watched but one where you got swept into the current.
Heads-up: Salonation presents "You're Gonna Die; A Holiday Fantasia" Thursday, Dec. 20, at Metro, 3733 N. Clark St., featuring Big Dipper, Baathhaus, Grades, Honeybuns, the Fly Honeys and many more.