Saturday night was a night for reinvention—not only for Hall’s Island, a longtime lumber yard that is in the process of being renovated into a new public park, but for the headlining band, Alabama Shakes, who have trampolined to superstar status over the course of just a few short years.
It is impossible to overstate just how much the Shakes have improved since making their big debut to the music world at SXSW in 2012. At that point, they captured the hearts and minds of the music industry with their authenticity, their swagger, and their tightly crafted and intoxicating take on blues-rock. Now, in 2015, all their best characteristics have been amplified and their elements heated to a boiling point; watching them perform was like being inside a bottle rocket as it’s being lit and getting ready to explode.
Lead singer Brittany Howard’s voice has always been at the very center of Alabama Shakes’ sound, but as a frontwoman she didn’t always appear comfortable with being at the front of the stage. These days, she’s practically a whole new performer, taunting the audience with her raw screams and bold proclamations and creating such a magnetic and captivating energy that it made it hard to look at anybody else. She has become, for lack of a better word, a rock star.
Watching the show on Saturday night, I realized that it’s impossible to consider Alabama Shakes’ music without examining its context in the history of black music—and celebrating just how effectively and seamlessly it sews this history together into an invigorating, new-old sound. From James Brown to Tina Turner, Big Mama Thornton to D’Angelo, listening to the new Alabama Shakes album and watching their live show is like taking a guided tour through the past 60 years of African-American music. A trio of back-up singers upped the Motown vibe on songs like “Dunes,” and even the more southern and classic rock influences that propel the band’s sound forward on “Shoegaze” and “Don’t Want to Fight No More” are ultimately rooted in the blues, making it all the more satisfying that Howard is reclaiming these sounds and weaving them into her band’s aesthetic.
In fact, Alabama Shakes’ ability to weave traditionally black art forms like soul, gospel, and the blues together with white rock influences and southern country sounds is awfully similar to Prince’s ability to blend the emerging black and white sounds of the late ’70s into his own pioneering blend of new wave, rock, and funk music. It is really that surprising that he sent members of his band, 3RDEYEGIRL, to check out the show, and has invited the Shakes to perform at Paisley Park tonight?
Earlier in the evening, Father John Misty pulled in the growing crowd with his unique combination of sarcastic humor, surreal lyricism, and theatrical melodrama, lacing his performance with grand gestures of affection for the crowd and a prolonged selfie video shot on a concertgoer’s cell phone. (“It’ll be almost like you were here,” he scoffed, handing the phone back to the fan from underneath a neon sign that requested “No Photography.”)
Mr. Misty, a.k.a. Josh Tillmann, thanked the Shakes for giving him such an unprecedented 75-minute opening slot, and it turned out that his set was exactly the right length to allow him to completely unhinge, cut loose from his restraints, and wield his mic stand like an axe over his head during his fiery final song, “The Ideal Husband.”
And in its big debut, Hall’s Island shined as an outdoor concert space. The site—a big, grassy field, which is essentially a blank canvas for promoters to lay out however they please—offered a breathtaking view of downtown Minneapolis, especially as the sun went down. While a few of the logistics could use some tweaking (the biggest complaint from fans was the long wait to get in through the site’s sole entrance), the venue was easy enough to get to and looked like it had the potential to expand toward the river to hold even more people than the 8,500 that were out on Saturday night.
Photos from Hall’s Island by Nate Ryan: