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October 8, 2012

At the Merriweather Post Pavilion, October 6

Perhaps it’s no longer sufficient to call the Alabama Shakes the year’s best new rock ‘n’ roll band. Maybe we should just call them the year’s best band. Period.

When the Alabama Shakes took the stage at the Merriweather Post Pavilion stage at 5:30, just past the midpoint in Saturday’s Virgin Mobile Freefest, they had none of the occasional tentativeness and bewilderment they had betrayed in March as “the next big thing” at South by Southwest. The quintet was now brimming with confidence, giving the songs from their debut album even greater tension and even greater release than they had in the studio or in their early shows.

Lead singer Brittany Howard—a big woman in a vintage blue dress with orange polka dots, vintage glasses and vintage perm—no longer looked at the floor between lines. She jutted her jaw and jabbed her forefinger at the audience as if we were all the wayward lover she was addressing in her songs. “Be Mine” began quietly with Heath Fogg’s minimalist but arresting soul-guitar figure and Howard is quiet as well, musing that “all them girls won’t turn your head,” because no one will love you that she will.

But in the live version Saturday, she seemed to be seized by doubt, then panic halfway through the song. And she started shouting, “Be mine! Be my baby!” her soprano erupted like a volcano, pleading with her lover, threatening him and finally overwhelming him in the tidal wave of her feeling. And her four male bandmates were right there with her, building from quiet to loud as dramatically as Nirvana, from complacent to desperate as expertly as Booker T. & the MGs backing up Otis Redding.

The whole set was like that: the introspective verses suddenly exploding into declamatory choruses. Howard’s seemingly bottomless lungs dominated the music, but it would be foolish to underestimate her gifted bandmates, who have already learned the most elusive of lessons for young musicians: how to distill a musical idea into a concise but effective minimalism. The band introduced some new, unrecorded songs, which had more of a swinging rockabilly feel than the first album’s rock ‘n’ soul. It’s hard to imagine a band with a brighter future than the Alabama Shakes.

The future is also bright for Allen Stone, even if he’s playing for smaller stakes. Stone delivered an impressive set at the Virgin Freefest, singing pop-soul in the tradition of Hall and Oates and the Time with a thrilling high tenor and giddy falsetto. Even more impressive than Stone’s range was his rhythmic phrasing, for every syllable pushed along the syncopation. He sang covers of Bob Marley’s “Is This Love” and Rufus’s “Tell Me Something Good” as well as his recent radio hit “Unaware,” and everything was pure pleasure.

The Baltimore-based trio Future Islands had an early set at the West Stage, the temporary, roofless area away from the Pavilion. Whether crouched like a gorilla or shadow-boxing with the air, lead singer Sam Herring was undeniably charismatic and keyboardist Gerrit Welmers played juicy melodies and harmonies over the pounding dance tracks. Unfortunately, the live sound mix emphasized the bottom so much that the lyrics were indecipherable and the chord changes hard to follow.

This was a problem throughout the day, as sound engineers at every stage sacrificed words and tunes to the demands of a thumping pulse. For a lot of acts, that didn’t matter so much, but for acts such as Future Islands, Ben Folds, Trampled by Turtles and Jack White, where the lyrics do matter, the mix undermined many of the songs.

Folds played with his reunited trio, inexplicably called the Ben Folds Five, and split the set between songs from their terrific new album,The Sound of the Life of the Mind, and the favorites from their original incarnation in the ‘90s. As with the Alabama Shakes, most of the attention was focused on the frontperson, in this case Folds, who is a much better singer and pianist now than he was in the early days. But as with the Alabama Shakes, the backing band is a lot better than it’s given credit for. Bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee not only back Folds with smart, stripped-down parts but also supply the harmony vocals that make the trio actually sound like a quintet.

Jack White is now touring with two different bands: an all-male ensemble called Los Buzzardos and an all-female group called the Peacocks. The Peacocks joined him Saturday at Merriweather. The six women, all dressed in vintage white dresses, not only gave White’s Led Zeppelin excursions the necessary thump, but also added roots-rock elements with pedal-steel guitar, fiddle and gospel harmonies. White himself remains one of the most talented musicians of his generation, but his music still sounds like it’s less than the sum of its parts. He’s never quite able to make the virtuoso guitar and high-flying vocals cohere into a credible story.

As for ZZ Top, the Texas trio remains the most overrated, boring roots-rock band to ever make a video.

  • Satisfaction

    Thank you for noticing that Allen Stone is one gifted young dude, doing neo soul a solid.

  • Anonymous

    That was a pretty good article until the last sentence. Overrated?? Justin Bieber is overrated. ZZ Top are fucking legends! They have 15 albums, 4 gold, 3 platinum, 2 multi-platinum and 1 diamond. They have ALREADY been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They’ve won three VMA’s for their videos AND the Texas House of Representatives named them “Official Heroes for the State of Texas.” So please, don’t make silly, uninformed comments about the only good thing to ever come out of Texas.