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Review: Alabama Shakes in Dallas

Posted 1:47pm on Wednesday, Mar. 13, 2013

Brittany Howard, the captivating lead singer of Alabama Shakes, can be a force of nature on stage.

We saw it at this year’s Grammys, when she stood shoulder to shoulder with Mavis Staples, Mumford &Sons, T Bone Burnett and Elton John, in a moving tribute on Levon Helm's The Weight.

On Saturday Night Live, the 24-year-old stole the show with her volcanic vocals and tornado-like intensity. And the world began to understand what rock critics have been raving about for the last year, since Shakes released its debut album Boys and Girls.

Channeling the spirit of Janis Joplin with her spitfire shout, and then sprinkling it with some of Tina Turner's soulful strut and the conviction of a southern preacher, Howard at her best is pure magic.

But a funny thing happened at her first show in Dallas on Tuesday night.

The volcano never erupted. Hurricane Brittany never reached gale force. And the result was a surprisingly subdued 70 minutes of enjoyable slow-build Southern soul that didn't build to anything truly memorable.

"She's burnt," one diehard fan told another as Howard and her bandmates left the stage. "They've been touring for 18 months."

And he's right; it has been a rocket ride to stardom for the Shakes (guitarist Heath Fogg, bassist Zac Cockrell, keyboard player Ben Tanner, and drummer Steve Johnson), who only a few years years ago were playing in Howard’s garage in Athens, Ala. And she was delivering mail.

As the critical hosannas and Grammy nominations have piled up, so have the stakes, and you could almost sense the weight of expectations bearing down on the band during its sold-out show at the Palladium.

Howard started quickly with a tight version of the popular Hang Loose, and she seemed nervous, clutching her turquoise Gibson while still delivering dead-on perfect vocals.

The capacity crowd sang along unprompted on the hooky Hold On, trying to will Howard to cut loose. But she was in her own world, unwilling to share her mojo with the audience just yet.

It wasn’t until she put down the guitar for Be Mine that she began to flash some of that trademark sweaty charm, stalking across the stage in her polka dot dress and howling in perfect harmony with her bandmates.

The moment was fleeting, though, and with only one album of originals and no memorable covers to speak of, Alabama Shakes left the stage at the 60-minute mark after Howard’s heartfelt version of Boys and Girls. I actually heard a few fans ask: "That's it?!?"

It wasn’t, thankfully. A three-song encore featured a rip-roaring rendition of You Ain't Alone, and we finally got a glimpse of the Howard we’d all come to see and hear: Hair bouncing, face contorting and voice ballooning up to the rafters.

She is one beautiful belter.

But the show never really reached full liftoff. We had come expecting Hurricane Brittany. What we got was a cool breeze.

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