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Alabama Shakes And Drive-By Truckers At Forest Hills Stadium, Saturday, 19th, 2015, Review

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Forest Hills Stadium is two thirds filled Saturday night and I have spent the Drive By Truckers boring set working my way steadily to the side, where there are  scores of empty seats and pretty good sitelines. By the time Alabama Shakes come on,  I am peering straight down at the band but the wind has kicked up and I forgot a jacket and I feel as though I’m in the middle of a soft sell storm; thousands of people talking among themselves instead of listening to the left, a bunch of pals smoking and guzzling beer above me, as though it is the Railway Arms, five blocks away on Austin Street, and Brittany Howard and the rest of Alabama Shakes to my right, belting hard rocking roots songs, in a voice that could melt your face and your heart… sometimes.

This wasn’t just irritating, it was perplexing: the audience were waves of noise, erupting in applause and then erupting in another instrument type sound of murmurs, crickets in the countryside late at  night, or a nightmare where you know people are talking about you but you can’t make out their words or the sound of the crowd beneath a person about to jump off a building.

What am I doing here?

I like Alabama Shakes fine but had no intention of going to see them till my good friend, Tomas Doncker, kept on me for weeks that we had to go. I can hear what he liked about them: Doncker is at heart an 80s New Wave guy, a perpetual teen as likely to rave about U2 as he is about Howling Wolf. What Doncker loves about Brittany is how she finds a place where her Southern roots meet her art rock aspirations. If you listen to Doncker’s own Big Apple Blues, a similar musical mesh of genre’s are right below the surface.

Me, I think they Alabama Shakes are as good as their songs, and Drive By Truckers aren’t even that good.

So, now here is the moral to the story, don’t be best of friends with a musician whose star is in the ascendency. I haven’t seen much of Tomas all year, as he has performed gigs all summer long while recording a new album, working on a Basketball Opera, and producing other people’s albums. So I wasn’t exactly shocked when he cancelled our plans for the concert to open for Harold Melvin And The Bluenotes yesterday.

So that is why I was chilly, and bad tempered, watching Drive-By Truckers perform a terrible set at Forest Hills Stadium. When I told her where I was, Helen Bach said “The only good thing about Drive By Truckers is Joseph Steinhardt mentioned them in a song.” And while I wouldn’t go that far, they are the Wilco of Southern Rock, overestimated and underwhelming  with one great album and a clutch of great songs, a few of them written by the now solo Jason Isbell. This is both the last and the first time I am seeing them on stage. Opening with a lousy dirge of a song and only recovering later with a pretty “Marry Me”. the band floated in the air. To add insult to injury we didn’t get “Hell No, I AIn’t Happy” and had to settle for “Shit Shots Still Count”, they ended with a terrific jam to take em out after an hour of failing to connect.

DBT’s Patterson Hood discovered Alabama Shakes four years ago when DBT took em under their wings and out on the road. So now the Shakes are returning the favor by refusing to embarrass DBT with a great performance. Brittany is a great singer, and they have some ace material, but they were clueless as to how to sell em it in a 14K capacity stadium. At $65 for a “cheap seat”, Alabama Shakes didn’t bother providing us with close circuit TV, all we could see was insects emoting. When I managed to get close to the stage it was obvious that Brittany really does perform, acts out the songs, gestures among bellows, on “Miss You” -dedicated to a friend in jail, she is front and center giving it all away. Some drunken woman, nearly falling over me in a rush to take pictures, said “Isn’t she wonderful? So soulful.” Brittany is both things but not for this venue, the song before the encore “Gemini” -a long arty one, was so misjudged you just wanna be a fly on the wall at the band meeting when they chose it. Perhaps  guitarist Heath Fogg was trying to assert himself, though since Brittany both writes and sings em, there is only one thing shaking in Alabama.

The set had its moments, though not enough, “Always Alright” and “Shoegaze” were great but they were great because they were great songs.”Future People” (co-written with Blake Mills) is her best arty New Wavy thingy and a strong opener. And like I said, she can sing em great. “Her voice gives me chills” a friend claimed, that or the weather. She has range and strength and can rock like Billie or blues like Joplin, she has some of the character of an actor, though she isn’t a charismatic performer and she isn’t a leader Still, a scintillating “Heartbreak” set the stage for a run of three great songs, which suggests the band just don’t quite know what they are doing. The rest of the band are nondescript and more or less besides the point, the long ones where they jam out don’t work.

The problem with Alabama Shakes was the arty ones sucked, the new wavy ones added nothing, and the soul songs were incredible but distant. Howard is a great singer but not a great frontwoman, at least and certainly not without close circuit TV. Her performance doesn’t translate, people were polite and not attentive at the same time, they wanted to love Brittany but their attention kept slipping. A friend of mine claimed, Alabama Shakes are great background music, but you can either play background music or play stadiums, you can’t do both  and really, if Alabama Shakes want to play stadiums they  better figure out how to play stadiums.

Grade: C

3 Comments

  1. Dick Destiny on September 22, 2015 at 12:18 am

    Well now, Zip City’s pretty good. But that’s not Isbell or Hood, right? I had a phrase for these kindsa bands when I wrote for the Voice: Hard rock for people who don’t like hard rock. Same with the Alabama Shakes. A couple friends send me stuff to hear and I kept waiting for a big explosion that never happens. Lots of vim and vigor, yeah, but…

    As for the side project, Thunderwhatsis, same thing. Link Wray-style without any Link Wray.

  2. Pat on September 23, 2015 at 12:59 pm

    Dude, so this is the only time you have ever seen DBT? Sounds like you know some of their songs though? Is their one great album Southern Rock Opera? Decoration Day? Brighter than Creations Dark? The Dirty South?…..or all of them.

    So you have never seen their own 25-30 song set where they alternate between melting you face with rock as good are it can played and slowing it down to tell stories that Steinbeck
    could have written.

    Did you ever think that in getting to play 10 songs to an audience just milling in that there is a reason you didn’t hear Women Without Whiskey, Zip City, Let There be Rock, Putting People on the Moon, Get on the Plane etc that they purposely played it moderate so as the not even try to upstage the Shakes? These guys are pros. As friends they knew their role the other night.

    Judge them on their own show. Their show versus a Shakes show? Not even close.
    They are top 25 live in rock history live emo.

  3. pat on September 23, 2015 at 6:36 pm

    Imo…..oops

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