By Sheena Barnett
They say rock ‘n’ roll is the devil’s music, but I beg to differ. There are a lot of bands out there that spew a lot of crazy things, sometimes mean things. I think most bands that go that route are in it purely for the shock value, but that’s another column topic for another day.
So, let me put it this way: I think God is everywhere, even in rock ‘n’ roll, even in a band that doesn’t call itself a Christian rock band, even in a bar full of happy, dancing drunks.
I believe this because I see it every day – especially at Alabama Shakes concerts.
Whether the Alabama Shakes are channeling the spirit of James Brown, reviving Zeppelin or, stunningly enough, mixing the two, this quartet from Athens, Ala. is hands-down the best live band I’ve ever seen. And trust me, I’ve seen a lot of bands.
Before I saw the band’s first show in Tupelo at the Blue Canoe, I interviewed lead singer Brittany Howard. Just a few weeks prior to the interview, she’d quit her job as a postal worker. Her band was quickly becoming famous and she seemed excited and bewildered by it all.
I asked her what an Alabama Shakes live show is like, and she gave me one of my favorite quotes of all time.
“It’s like a Baptist Church on a Sunday morning, except everything’s real loud and there’s cussing,” Howard said. “It’s like a rock ‘n’ roll church. I wouldn’t ever exaggerate.”
She didn’t. She made me a believer a few weeks later there in the Blue Canoe. If she’d called for anyone to come up to the stage and surrender their soul to the Lord, I’d have been first in line.
She made me a believer again, last week, at Proud Larry’s in Oxford.
Somehow, Howard and her bandmates, Heath Fogg, Zac Cockrell and Steve Johnson, turn any stage – from small ones like in Larry’s or the Canoe to larger platforms in front of thousands – into a pulpit, and from there the band spews forth its truth. Howard almost deserves the title Reverend in front of her name. She has mannerisms like that of any good Baptist preacher: when she’s not throwing down on the guitar, she’s waving her arms in the air, staring down the audience from behind her black plastic-framed glasses. Her lyrics are a bit religious, anyway, so that adds to the divine feeling.
“Bless my heart, bless my soul – didn’t think I’d make it to 22 years old. There must be somebody up above, saying, ‘Come on Brittany, you got to come on up. You got to hold on,’” she sings in the band’s biggest hit, “Hold On.”
She sings about the Promised Land in “On Your Way,” and thanks God for a newfound love in “I Found You.” But the Alabama Shakes isn’t a Christian band.
Howard isn’t singing God’s word, but she’s singing her truth. It’s her own gospel, and she’ll make you a believer.
She and her band mates are doing rock ‘n’ roll their own way, playing to hundreds or even thousands of dancing, often drunk music fans, all over the country.
If that ain’t rock ‘n’ roll, I don’t know what is.