3 Things About Live Music - Alabama Shakes on ACL

by Joshua B. Hoe Sound and Color by Alabama Shakes uploaded by Joshua B. Hoe

So, Alabama Shakes kicked off the second half of the 41st season of Austin City Limits this weekend.

For the uninitiated, ACL is pretty much the only series around that continually celebrates live performance (no, not where people appear, where they actually play and sing live - more on that in a second).

Here is the performance:

My Love Of The Shakes

If you read this blog, you know:

* Alabama Shakes finished second in my Best Albums of 2015 series.

* I have written about my unqualified love of singer/guitarist Brittany Howard

* I even wrote about them in the context of Mr. Robot (one of my favorite shows of 2015).

But one of the things I love the most about the Shakes is that they are an exceptional live band.

What Makes A Live Band Exceptional

My criteria:

1) Can they play

when you strip away the dancers, the pyrotechnics (the bullshit), can the band play.

This debate used to be about if a band was a studio band (better with overdubs and layering and effects) or a band that could play their stuff live. But now it is about if a band can play at all.

So much of music is made inside software now, and that can be okay too, that some bands are really not bands at all anymore.

If you have watched much live music, you know the difference.

So, the first test, can you play live.

Alabama Shakes can play. Not a little, a lot.

2) Does the music grow from playing it live

Maybe the best example of this I ever saw was a concert by the Trip-Hop artist Tricky.

I loved Tricky's album "Pre-Millennium Tension", and I heard he was playing pretty close to where I lived in Tempe (sheer luck, he rarely tours the US).

So, I tied up my boots and went to the show.

What a revelation, every song added layer after layer to the album version. After seeing the concert the album versions of the songs, while still enjoyable, mostly made me hungry for hearing the concert versions again.

I never looked at those songs in exactly the same way again. The performance transformed what they could mean to me.

Alabama Shakes can also do that live.

Watch the video above, watch Brittany Howard covey the emotion behind the songs, the soul, the pain, the joy. I have said it before, I will say it again, Brittany Howard is fierce!

And, like most great live bands, after extensively touring songs, you can start to hear where the players found little improvements and added layers that make the songs even better.

Just listen and watch her communication during "Over My Head," it's different, better, she is preaching to us from a deep place in her soul, not just hitting notes.

I would rather hear Brittany Howard tell me a musical story about the phone book than listen to Mariah Carey demonstrate every vocal embellishment in her gigantic arsenal (come to think of it, that is exactly the problem, that is what MC does on every song).

This is the reason I prefer Aretha to Beyonce, why I prefer Sinatra to Buble, why I prefer Loretta to Carrie, and why I love Brittany Howard, she is sharing a part of herself with her singing (and with her guitar).

She is telling me the stories of her life, not just singing notes at me, there is intention and soul and pain.

3. Because - Human Beings

As the great Joe Strummer (The Clash, The Mescaleros) put it in an interview with Chris Salewicz:

"The more stuff that gets pre-recorded - backing tapes and all that stuff - the prouder we feel that we're the real thing. Even when you're all feeling knackered and it's a bit shabby, I'd rather live with that because at least it's human. Life is unpredictable. If everything is pre-recorded, then everything is monotonously the same whether your're up or down."

Nowadays, producers and record executives pre-package every element of supposedly "live" shows. You can't watch a music awards show and see an honest performance anymore, unless someone makes a huge mistake.

The vast majority of live music you see today is only live in the sense that the performer is actually on the stage:

* The mike is live, but only so that the "singer" can add flavor, like "Do You Hear Me Cleveland" over the canned vocal track, the rest is lip syncing.

* The band might be "playing" (if there even is a band) but most likely they are playing lightly over pre-produced tracks.

* Add dancers, pyrotechnics, stunts, and - if possible - flying monkeys.

Watch that Alabama Shakes performance again, when they do the last track "Over My Head" - it doesn't have a big fireworks ending, it actually just kind of ends, but in a very human way.

She isn't the same every time, they aren't the same every time, that is what makes live music so much better - it is HUMAN.

Or, another way to put it - When you start appreciating the machine over human, Skynet has already won (if you know it or not).

If you get a chance check out the other set on ACL by Vintage Trouble (very good as well).

What do you think about Alabama Shakes? Do you love Austin City Limits? What are your thoughts on live music? Let me know, I would love to hear your comments!

If you want to read more of my takes on the Clash:

I wrote about The Clash in the context of US Immigration Policy.

In my books you should read section.

In a recent "albums you should listen to" post.

And in the first post I ever wrote for this blog (because The Clash are the inspiration for my view on music)

The Clash by The Clash uploaded by Joshua B. Hoe