“No EDM stuff,” Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard promised a roomful of New York fans on Tuesday evening. “All the instruments you hear on this album are real instruments.”
That revelation came as no surprise to fans of the four-piece roots-rock outfit from you-can-probably-guess-where, but a cheer went up from the crowd at the iHeartRadio Theater anyway. The band had stopped by iHeartRadio to preview tracks from their upcoming second album, Sound & Color, and the small audience packed into the intimate theater space was dotted with superfans who already had tickets for the band’s shows at New York’s Beacon Theatre over the following two nights. It was clearly a relief for them to hear that, unlike the newly electric Mumford & Sons, the band isn’t planning on changing their sound for the next album. Instead, the iHeartRadio set proved that Sound & Color will double down on what made the Shakes’ gold-certified debut Boys & Girls so great: Howard’s voice, which crackles like vinyl and channels the ghost of Janis Joplin into something even more powerful, and the steady drums and guitar riffs that remind you what’s cool about the South.
The show opened with “Dunes”—the third track from Sound & Color, and an excellent example of the band’s willingness to let loose and jam out a little more on these new songs. While Howard isn’t always front and center on the new tracks, the extended insturmental breaks mean that when her howling voice does come in, it comes with even more impact. Howard is clearly pushing her vocals to new heights: lead Sound single “Don’t Wanna Fight” starts with a wordless primal howl, and she even told the audience that one song on Sound features her trying to sound like a child (“it’s pretty shocking, but it sounds good”).
Each of the first five songs of the set (which included “Don’t Wanna Fight” and “Always Alright” from the Silver Linings Playbook soundtrack) were bookended a by quick Q&A led by iHeartRadio host Jonathan Clarke. His questions were simple – what does the album title mean? How’d you get that band name? What was with those awesome earrings on SNL? – and Howard’s answers were equally so: It sounded cool; they were originally “The Shakes” but didn’t want to get sued; shout-out to Prince. Howard did engage in some back-and-forth with fans a bit from the stage, but it’s clear she puts all her effort into performing the songs.
That’s why seeing Alabama Shakes live is so essential to appreciating them: As you may have seen on SNL the other week, Howard is a singularly dynamic stage presence, so engaged in the moment that she almost knocked over the mic stand at one point. The band has also developed a pretty awesome light show, set to synchronize with the songs and their riffs.
Another new addition to the Shakes’ live setup is backup singers—two women and one man, all dressed in black, accompanied the band throughout Tuesday evening’s performance, bringing a fuller sound to standouts like the set’s closer, the gospel-tinged “Over My Head.” The song began a capella and Howard herself eschewed guitar on this one, giving her the freedom to strut around the stage like a fusion of Future Islands frontman Samuel Herring and Kanye West’s new robot dance. That uplifting finale proved once again that, despite the “Alabama” in their name and the home state tattoo visible on Howard’s arm, the Shakes’ furious energy can bridge geographical divides and remind you that rock and soul aren’t mutually exclusive.
Sound & Color is out April 21 from ATO Records.