There were too many musical threads to count during Alabama Shakes' dynamic and dizzying performance at the Ogden Theatre. During the most heart-rending moments of "Be Mine," for example, vocalist and guitarist Brittany Howard summoned the spirits of James Brown, Etta James and Solomon Burke simultaneously. Keyboardist Ben Tanner, meanwhile, evoked the soul of Booker T. Jones and Zac Cockrell's bass lines took cues from Motown's James Jamerson and the Stax label's Donald "Duck" Dunn.
It was a seamless tribute, a loving nod to the giants of Southern soul. But Alabama Shakes were much more than the sum of their tributes. The quintet showed that their meteoric rise to fame in the past year has brought its own musical maturity. The show proved that the band is forging an original identity of its own, a sound that's more than a simple tribute to the past.
Alabama Shakes took to the Ogden stage at about 10 p.m., following opening performances by Sam Doores + Riley Downing and the Tumbleweeds and Michael Kiwanuka that were solid enough to merit their own shows. With a camera crew on stage and in the wings of the balcony for a live simulcast on AXS TV, the concert had the feel of an important event before the band took the stage. Fog flooded the front of the room as the sold-out venue became more and more packed. Cameramen and tech crew members darted across the stage before the lights dimmed.
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When Alabama Shakes finally took the stage and busted out a soulful rendition of "Hang Loose," all of the complex preparation made sense. It was hard to believe that this was a band that was largely unknown just a year ago. Howard offered no banter or location-specific greetings (that would come later in the set when she professed her love for Denver with a heartfelt, "I love your town, y'all") before the group kicked off the show in high gear. She launched right into her expressively pained vocal style, singing with the fervor of a preacher and the depth of the best soul diva. The rest of the ensemble followed her lead.
In back-to-back powerhouse tunes like "Always Alright" and "Rise to the Sun," the band showed the precision and emotion of seasoned vets. Tanner's keyboard lines ran the gamut from sultry to spiritual -- his work summoned gospel spirituals, classic Southern soul and gritty blues in the space of a single song. Cockrell's bass work on numbers like "I Found You" was equally eclectic, and drummer Steve Johnson and guitarist Heath Fogg helped round out the band's ambitious menu of sounds and structures.
But Howard led the show, and her energy was as constant as it was infectious. With her hair elaborately styled for the cameras, she cut the figure of a natural frontwoman, belting out impossible shifts from falsetto heights to low drawls during "Be Mine." She put a like amount of passion into her stints on guitar, but some of Howard's most affecting moments came when she was only holding the mic. She ventured to the front of the stage, singing to the massive crowd like she was a preacher leading a congregation. With simples statements like "I feel pretty good, too" before songs, Howard and the band let the music serve as the real message of the evening.
For anyone who's seen the act come through Colorado in the past year, the confidence and range on display was quite a shift for the young ensemble from Athens, Alabama. It was impossible to miss the band's growth, even since their appearance as the opening act for Crazy Horse at Red Rocks last summer . The band largely stuck to slower tempos and songs in 3/4 time during that show -- here, they veered constantly from any one formula, even in the space of a single song.
Even familiar tunes like "Boys & Girls" seemed to boast more expressiveness and spirit during this Denver appearance. The quintet's short time in the national and international spotlight is having a rapid and remarkable effect in terms of musical maturity and growth. As the sold-out crowd sang along to tunes off the album Boys and Girls that came out less than a year ago, the music felt older. The songs had a storied feel, the stamp of a band that's spent years perfecting its art. And it wasn't simply because the band did such a good job paying tribute to the masters who came before.
Continue on for more on the opening sets from Michael Kiwanuka and Sam Doores + Riley Downing and the Tumbleweeds, plus Critic's Notebook
Earlier in the evening, Michael Kiwanuka's set felt more like a stand-alone headlining act than an opening performance. The British soul singer and guitarist held the crowd rapt and attentive with his soft and slow balladry on the acoustic guitar. With a bassist as his sole accompanist, Kiwanuka managed to make a powerful statement with six strings and a powerful voice.
Playing a sunburst Gibson six-string, Kiwanuka warned the crowd early that he wouldn't resort to speedy tempos or overstated vocals to make his point. "Most of my songs are quiet," he said, apologizing to those who'd hoped for a louder intro to Alabama Shakes. But no one in the rapidly growing crowd seemed to mind Kiwanuka's approach, a style that was soulful and subtle, earnest but understated.
His guitar work made tasteful use of finger-picking styles and chords spelled out across the neck, and his vocals on songs like "Home Again" and a cover of Tom Petty's "Wildflowers" were never strained or overstated. Instead, Kiwanuka made his musical points with nuance. Every ballad brought overwhelming applause, and his forty-minute set felt like more than an introduction to Alabama Shakes.
Similarly, Sam Doores + Riley Downing and the Tumbleweeds made their own statement. With a style rooted in traditional country and folk, the ensemble summoned a different strain of roots music. They played Elizabeth Cotten tunes, and they played their own soundtrack to Woody Guthrie lyrics that were never fit with a tune. It was a fitting intro to Kiwanuka, and a reminder that all of the bands on the Ogden stage on Saturday night pulled from rich and varied traditions.
Personal Bias: I'm a sucker for Solomon Burke, Motown, Stax Records, Woody Guthrie, Elizabeth Cotten and Tom Petty, so each band pulled on some of my sentimental musical heartstrings.
Random Note: Stylist Talie Ayers from Denver's Three Little Birds salon got the call before the show that Howard was looking for someone to do her 'do. She reported for duty on Saturday, and her work was impressive -- a drunken audience member next to me remarked how elegant the lead singer's hair looked.
By The Way: According to Sam Doores + Riley Downing and the Tumbleweeds, there are Woody Guthrie lyrics in various stages of completion posted online that are just waiting to be put to music.
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