SNL Sound-Off: Alabama Shakes
After watching Alabama Shakes' Brittany Howard belt her way through "Hold On" and "Always Alright" on Saturday Night Live, I did what I always do--peruse Twitter to see what people have to say about SNL's musical guest--and CHRIST that was an infuriating exercise. In a perfect world, Howard's glorious voice and her icon-in-the-making delivery would be the first thing that people notice when she takes the stage as the frontwoman of a rock band. Maybe Jack White's endorsement would come up in conversation, too, as Alabama Shakes are in the process of putting together a volley of singles to be released on Third Man Records. Their accolade-reaping performances at SXSW, Bonnaroo and Newport Folk in 2012 turned on thousands to their straightforward, frills-free ruminations in C major, and they were hand-picked, alongside Elton John, T-Bone Burnett and Mumford & Sons, for a star-studded performance of "The Weight" that paid tribute to Levon Helm at the Grammys last week.
It's been a huge, huge year for Alabama Shakes. So why the hell can't people shut up about Brittany Howard's huge mouth and focus on her huge voice instead?
See also: Live: Alabama Shakes Keep It Short And Sweet At The Studio
To be fair, it's not like Howard's the only person who's ever been made fun of for the facial expressions that occur throughout her performance--hell, John Mayer is mercilessly teased for the O-faces that accompany his solos--but the trolls came out in full force Saturday night to slam the poor girl as if they were appalled that a woman who doesn't look or sound like Taylor Swift was picking up a guitar. For every Tweet that served as a virtual jaw-drop hailing Alabama Shakes and "Hold On," there were two that either questioned Howard's gender ("WAIT ALABAMA SHAKES IS FRONTED BY A GIRL LOL") or Howard's existence as, y'know, an actual human being ("Isn't that Madea? Where's Tyler Perry?") or worse ("I guess I'm kind of surprised that the lead singer is female or African-American.") Alabama Shakes wound up trending Saturday night on Twitter before the end of SNL, and the fact that they did so because it's easier to joke about the size of somebody's mouth than it is to put into words how you feel about the note that person is holding for an eight-count and a half is pretty fucking sad.
That said, at least the band did right by their sterling reputation and went to work on that tiny stage. Stoic as ever, Alabama Shakes marched into "Hold On" stone-faced and worked their way into a frenzy by the time Howard poured some gasoline on a slow-burning chorus. (High-fives to Ben Tanner, who also lost his mind on the organ during the broader parts of both "Hold On" and "Always Alright"--I appreciate the rest of Alabama Shakes and their ability to keep time and all, but last night was all about Howard and the man on keys.) They may be a band of four (or five on the road), but Alabama Shakes played as a well-oiled machine with as much control over the hushed, solemn notes as their exuberant explosions as one solitary force. You can't just count out a 4/4 beat and play a bunch of bar chords and make that kind of musicianship magically appear, and onstage is where the seemingly simple repertoire of Alabama Shakes elevates itself from radio-ready alt-country to the stuff of modern rock anthems.
And honestly? Who cares what the hell your mouth looks like when you're wailing like that. Last time I checked beautiful noise didn't have a face.
See also: Live: Alabama Shakes Reintroduce Themselves To New York