23 year old Brittany Howard has more charisma and personality in her right hand, than most X-Factor contestants will have in a lifetime. With a voice that channels Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Janis Joplin, and Tina Turner, and a stage presence to match, Howard is the reason that Alabama Shakes have gone from relative obscurity to international fame in the space of 18 months. In 2011, she was still working as a postie, but now, she's got the chops to fill Auckland's Powerstation to the brim, and have the wide-ranging crowd whooping, singing, and boogying for 80 minutes non-stop.
The four members of her band look like they could've stepped out of any bar in America's mid-west, and bassist Zac Cockrell nicely fits the stereotype of a trucker, but despite their modest, down-home appearance and quiet stage moves, they provide strong, tight backing for Howard, and support her vocals with some equally tasty licks. Ben Tanner's work on the synth, and Hammond organ (which comes complete with the treat of a Leslie speaker on stage) is beautiful without being showy, and somehow fits right into the true blue rock n soul that pervades the setlist.
Kicking straight into their hits at the start of the set, they play the short n sweet Goin' To The Party (which is indeed a good party starter), I Found You, an upbeat ballad steeped in old fashioned romance, and hit single Hold On. As Howard sings "there must be someone, up above, singing come on Brittany, you gotta come on up" it becomes abundantly clear that she's not the type of girl to ever give a half-hearted performance. She seems to throw her whole being into imparting a little wisdom, sharing heartbreak, hard times, and exorcising demons in every song.
And yet in between, she's also got some hard-case banter - early on, asking the crowd how they're feeling, she's comically indignant that they don't return the courtesy and ask how she is? "How am I? Well, I'm always alright" she winks, launching into classic hoedown Always Alright.
Perhaps one of the greatest surprises of the evening is that Howard is such a rock n roll guitarist - on Hang Loose, Mama and Makin' Me Itch especially, she swung and strummed her bright red Gretsch with style.
She's equally capable of reducing the audience to reverence with the slower, hard-hitting numbers of course, You Ain't Alone feeling like a heart-wrenching plea to a friend, and the sweet confusion and disappointment of their debut album's title track, Boys and Girls was a beautiful note to finish with, before they returned for a punchy encore, including new track I Ain't The Same.
Their songwriting may not be reinventing the wheel, but for those of us who weren't around in the 60s, and sometimes wish we had been, Alabama Shakes present a great night of genuine, unpretentious fun combined with solid notes of emotion. And it'd be surprising if there were many in the audience who left not wanting to become best friends with Miss Howard.