Their howling hit "Hold On" has been in steady rotation on radio at 89.3 the Current and Cities 97 for the better part of 2012. Their debut album came out in April to widespread acclaim. Before Wednesday night, however, Southern-baked soul-rock quintet Alabama Shakes had not performed in the Twin Cities.
Talk about the benefits of playing hard-to-get.
The Shakes' long-awaited arrival at Minneapolis' First Avenue sold out in a day and turned into one of the most buzzed-about, sought-after tickets by any new band in recent memory.
But unlike a lot of the hottest tickets of late -- remember Foster the People? -- this one brought the heat on stage. Five scruffy, thick-drawling musicians in their 20s who really are from Alabama (not a hipster haven like, say, Brooklyn), they came off as a completely authentic band, with an unreal frontwoman to boot.
Her name is Brittany Howard, 23, a former postal carrier with a gawky appearance and a stammering way of talking between songs. Somehow, though, she turns into a thoroughly cocksure, riveting soul singer with preacher-like fire when she sings.
"Sometimes, I don't know what to say," she admitted near the end of Thursday's 80-minute set, after the crowd roared its approval of her moving, gospel-rave-up vocals in "You Ain't Alone"
"It don't mean I don't love you," she added.
After enlisting the Time's "Jungle Bird" as their walk-on music -- a subtle display of love for where they were playing -- the band made a bold move by rolling straight into its big song, "Hold On," just after the brief opener "Goin' to the Party."
The hit's bouncy groove and brighter-day lyrics got the proverbial runner on the bases before the band knocked it out of the park, but it took them a little while to do so.
"Hang Loose" and "I Found You" sounded tentative and by-the-numbers before the show's first big wow moment. Howard finally let loose on vocals in the slow-building "Rise to the Sun" before hitting full-tilt Janis Joplin/Etta James territory in "Heartbreaker," both helped along by the band's Booker T. & the MGs-like organ/guitar-grinding groove. Howard again peaked later on with "I Ain't the Same," with the telling hook, "Not who I used to be."
Best of all was "On Your Way," another spiritualized gem that made for a climactic encore.
With still only one album to their name, Howard & Co. rounded out their set with a few new songs, including a sly, Chuck Berry-like boogie called "Makin' Me Itch." They also threw in a convincingly maniacal cover of James Brown's "I'll Go Crazy."
They have a little ways to go in becoming a full-fledged headlining band -- most of their dates this summer are shorter sets at festivals such as Bonnaroo and this weekend's Lollapalooza in Chicago -- but there's little doubt they'll get there. When they do, hold on.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658 • Twitter: @ChrisRstrib