Brittany Howard, EartH, review: the Alabama Shakes frontwoman serves up a heady brew of jazz, funk and soul

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Alabama Shakes singer Brittany Howard is launching a solo career
Alabama Shakes singer Brittany Howard is launching a solo career Credit: Lorne Thomson/Redferns

Brittany Howard is the voice of Alabama Shakes, the American band who rose to prominence by combining her powerful soul tones with scruffy indie rock. But with just two albums under their belt, the 30-year-old has paused her band’s stellar ascent to launch a solo career. On the evidence of a compelling London debut at EartH in Hackney, her move was driven by musical, not commercial, ambition.

Compared to the tightly-focused blues drive of the Shakes, Howard’s solo project conjures a sprawling mess of musical styles – funk, soul, jazz, electro, hip-hop – and it’s hard to get a handle on such a brew. But such was its quality, the thousand-strong crowd were effusive in their praise. Howard’s voice is world-class, and this show was about letting it loose.

A plus-sized woman with short hair and spectacles, Howard has never looked much like a stereotypical rock star, but here she was making an effort to impress. Arriving on stage in a bright red trouser suit with an Elvis-y cape effect, she led out an eight-piece band dressed in red and black. They resembled a scruffy version of James Brown’s Famous Flames, and at times their funky groove would have made the Godfather of Soul weak at the knees.

The rhythm section was tight and fluid, a pair of keyboard players layered gospel and jazz chords, the backing vocalists expanded the harmonic range, and two guitarists set up a nimble crossfire of dextrous licks, to which Howard herself would occasionally pick up a guitar and add bursts of fiery blues. At times its shaggy flare was the equal of classic Sly and the Family Stone, while Howard’s voice scaled the heights, from resonant low tones to scintillating falsetto, with a raw soul centre that made hairs rise on the back of your neck.

Howard's band, resplendent in red and black Credit: Redferns/Lorne Thomson

Yet the Shakes frontwoman was unwilling to settle into one space. She switched down for a spot of whimsical acoustic jazz on Short And Sweet, and dialed up the harsh electronic attack for some political posturing on 13th Century Metal. There were startling digressions into keyboard and drum solos. Her first solo album, Jaime, is out at the end of the month; maybe it’ll all make more sense then?

It can be commercial suicide for an artist to cut all links to their past as they try to establish a new direction. And while Howard thanked the audience for coming to hear a set of unfamiliar songs, she refused to make it easier by including some of the Shakes hits that gave her fame. Still, her sheer enthusiasm was infectious, bursting out in wild dancing and expressions of rapture. A funky and furious cover of Revolution by The Beatles and a slow, soulful ride through Sam & Dave’s Something Is Wrong With My Baby provided the relief of familiarity. (Both songs, it must be said, are more tightly constructed than many of Howard’s own.) 

But there was a real hint of where Howard is capable of going in her towering version of Prince’s The Breakdown, from 2014’s Art of the Official Age. “This was his favourite song,” she said, and she would know: she jammed with the late superstar. Her performance was a breathtaking display of vocal emotion and control. At times like this, Howard and her expansive new band sound able to reach the dizziest musical heights.