Have to admit, I was a little miffed at Brittany Howard heading into her Twin Cities solo debut Thursday at the Palace Theatre.
Only two albums into her band Alabama Shakes’ thrilling run, the 30-year-old singer/songwriter seemed to be cutting away to do her own thing way too soon. The Shakes evolved greatly just between their two records and won four Grammys, too. Anticipation was high for their follow-up. Dropping a solo album instead felt like an indulgent and cocky move on her part.
Thursday’s concert was exactly that, too: indulgent and cocky, right down to the fact that it was on the eve of her solo album’s release Friday. Fans had never heard most of the tunes she sang, and she made it clear she wouldn’t be offering Shakes songs on tour, either (which probably explains why the theater was only three-quarters full).
It’s a strong testament to Howard’s natural talents and unique artistic vision that she got away with it all so well.
Copping many showy moves and vocal flourishes from Prince — she even picked out a superb deep cut from the Purple Yoda to cover — Howard was all over the place, literally and figuratively. She strutted, slid and shimmied her way across the stage channeling ’60s Motown and soul music, ’70s funk and R&B and a little ’80s pop and rock in her 75-minute set. And that was just the musical side of things.
Lyrically, the songs from her new album, “Jaime,” were stacked like a Southern food buffet, with themes including religious backsliding, racial disharmony and disparity and her own personal drama of feeling like an outcast. It all came with an overriding love-one-another message, and by show’s end the vibe in the room indeed felt like one big love-in.
Dressed in a bright red cloak that suggested she would encounter a big, bad wolf or two along the way, Howard opened the concert like a preacher delivering a sermon in “He Loves Me.” The slow-swaying, gospel-y gem is all about God forgiving her many sins, and fans (like me) were immediately ready to forgive her transgressions as a solo artist.
Howard’s eight-piece band — dressed in matching red outfits, including two female backup singers — looked stylish but sounded devilish funky from the get-go.
With bassist Zac Cockrell carrying over from Alabama Shakes and a heavy dosage of organ pumping, the group built a frantic crescendo in the second song, “Georgia,” matching Howard’s desperate-sounding lyrics about wanting to be appreciated for who she is; it wasn’t clear if she was asking for love from a woman named Georgia or from the conservative, racially charged Southern state of the same name.
A lot of the songs similarly revealed themselves to be something much deeper and more dramatic than they started out to be. “Baby” at first sounded like your average love song with “baby” in the title but turned into a psychedelic, jazzy, Isaac Hayes-like opus that also begged for acceptance.
Even the cover songs proved to be more than just filler. The Prince pick, 2014’s “The Breakdown,” literally boasted a sobering message and perfectly fit the show’s musical DNA. She also sang the Sam & Dave classic “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” like it was a personal anthem, and she playfully riffed on the Beatles’ “Revolution” in the encore as an obvious call to arms.
The final song before the encore, “Goat Head,” was a true showstopper. Delivered in a preacher-like rap over a thick, repetitious, New Orleans-y groove, Howard recounted real instances of racism from her childhood in rural Alabama, including the story of the decapitated animal’s head being left in her family’s car.
“Mama is white, and daddy is black / When I first got made, guess I made these folks mad,” she bellowed, looking downright possessed on stage, as was the crowd in front of her.
In the end, there were plenty of things to be mad about in Howard’s riveting, riling performance, but her choice to go solo and get more personal certainly wasn’t one of them.
Really a moving version of Prince's Breakdown (from Art Official Age) early on in @blkfootwhtfoot's set at @PalaceStPaul. She's singing it in every city, btw; as she should! #brittanyhoward pic.twitter.com/m5rm8YMeB0— C. Riemenschneider (@ChrisRstrib) September 20, 2019