Photos by Jim Mimna
The Scene: The sold-out Ogden Theatre was packed to the gills by the time opener Michael Kiwanuka took the stage, and the anticipation reached a climax fast. The audience ranged from the young trendy 20-somethings with their finger on the pulse of latest hot ticket on the scene, to seasoned music lovers of many years. Given Alabama Shakes fast track to popularity it seemed no one had seen them before, and that just added to the excitement that coursed through the room. The only real constant I noticed as I walked around the room trying to find some space was the consistent sound of Southern accents and, given the band’s name, that was no surprise.
Opener: Michael Kiwanuka. Having never heard of Michael Kiwanuka before I had no expectations, but I soon learned I was pretty much alone in that camp when he took the stage. Armed with only an acoustic guitar and a bass player, he took over the attention of the room with his 70’s style folky tunes. His music may be soft and soothing, but the lyrics are powerful and the rapt crowd sang along with Kiwanuka’s hushed voice. While his set was awe inspiring, it was sadly marred by less than stellar sound that resulted in booming bass reverberating around the room and drowning out some of the most tender moments. Hopefully when this songwriter returns to Denver, we’ll get to hear him in all his glory.
Alabama Shakes: When Brittany Howard and the rest of Alabama Shakes walked out onto the stage the Ogden simply exploded in deafening cheers and, as the band tore into “Hang Loose” from their 2012 debut album Boys & Girls, those cheers morphed into a chorus of voices singing along in unison. As was the case with most of the songs throughout the night, “Hang Loose” was short, powerful and to the point and didn’t feature any extended jams or improvisation. While I’m a fan of intricate improvisation and mind bending jamming, one of the most beautiful things about The Shakes is the simplicity and rawness of their music. Songs like “I Found You,” “Rise To The Sun” and “Be Mine” built beautifully and showcased the band’s ability to stop and turn on a dime while allowing Howard the space within the songs to really pour on the Soul.
With a voice that conjures up visions of Aretha Franklin, and a stage presence that brings to mind a Southern version of Adele, Howard commanded attention whether she was tearing it up on the guitar or just standing at the edge of the stage with the mic in her hand. She is undoubtedly the star of this group and the boys in her band seem content to let her have the spotlight as they confidently crank out the music from the shadows.
While there wasn’t a ton of audience interaction during the 75 minute set, from time to time Howard would take to the mic to introduce a song with a little anecdote. She got the most personal when she spoke up before the band broke into “Heartbreaker” and said “it’s a shame we had to write a song like this, but I want everyone to know I’m okay now.” That elicited some sympathy from the packed house, but it was clear that crowd was there to hear her sing, as opposed to talk, and they hung on every note that poured from her.
After wrapping the set with a four song run from the 50’s influenced “Makin’ Me Itch” through the stellar “Heavy Chevy,” the Shakes left the stage as the audience screamed for more. The band obliged the curtain call and returned to the stage to drop another heavy dose of their trademark sound on The Ogden. They kicked things off with the relatively new tune “Gospel Song” and then moved into the Boys & Girls gem “You Ain’t Alone” before closing out the night on a bluesy note with “Heat Lightning.” From start to finish, Alabama Shakes delivered a set that was a moving and powerful reminder of just how good they really are at delivering Blues soaked Garage Soul music that soaks in deep and satisfies nearly every primal craving.
Stage Presence: A
Set/Light Show: B