Trying to shake off the rain

*** (3 stars out of 6); July 8 at Odeon, Roskilde Festival

Having just formed three years ago, Alabama Shakes rode on the winds of hype to land a prime 8pm timeslot at the 2012 Roskilde Festival’s final day.

With the festival beginning to wind down, a large number of weary revellers took to lawn chairs and the grass beyond the Odeon tent to see just why this young American blues rock band, who just released their debut album in April, was being billed as “one of the hottest bands of the moment”.

Heard – but not seen – from outside the tent, Alabama Shakes sounded not all too unlike a lot of talented but unknown American blues rock bands toiling away in a strip-mall bar somewhere. It was rootsy and familiar, pleasant and enjoyable. Yet one could clearly hear that singer Brittany Howard had a powerful and beautiful voice. The audience, whose numbers were likely bolstered due to a lack of competition from the recently-closed Cosmopol stage, seemed ready to settle in and see what was in store. 

Not more than ten minutes into the set, however, as the band played their single ‘Hold On’, the rain came. Those beyond the tent took from sitting on their chairs to using them as umbrellas and were left with a choice: get wet, get under the tent, or leave.

After a first attempt to get under the crowded tent failed, this reviewer went off to say some good-byes to festival companions. Returning a short time later and able to secure a dry spot within Odeon, it became a little easier to see why Alabama Shakes are being heralded as the new big thing.

Strutting the stage and displaying some real chops on the guitar, the 23-year-old Howard passionately belted out songs from the band’s debut, Boys & Girls, including ‘I Ain’t the Same’, and ‘Heartbreaker’. The Janis Joplin comparisons so often used with Howard were unmistakable, not only in the sound of her voice but in the passion in which she used it. Under her, the Shakes were laying down a Southern soul sound mixed with rhythm and blues that would have been right at home in Joplin’s day.

But while Alabama Shakes clearly can’t be blamed for the weather, and the rain did let up before the of their set, how their show was depended a lot on where you were. If you were under the Odeon tent, it was an energetic, promising performance by a group of young Americans reviving and putting a new spin on the old sounds of soul and rhythm and blues.

A lot of those who found themselves out in the rain, however, likely thought that it sounded pretty decent, just not good enough to not go off in search of dryer pastures.