LONDON (Reuters) - “Hang loose! Hang loose!”, exhorts Brittany Howard as she warms up a tense crowd at Alabama Shakes’ sold-out two-night set at London’s Brixton Academy on Thursday, where extra security staff were on hand following terrorist attacks in Paris.
Lead singer Brittany, bespectacled in a black dress, bellowing with her blue electric guitar, begins the show channeling her inner rock chick, almost screaming into the mic.
Though the band is a four-piece, it can feel like a solo performance by its charismatic front-woman as she stomps about the stage, sometimes sultry, sometimes defiant, but always a strong stage presence.
Twenty-seven-year-old Howard, whose raspy tones and tales of heartbreak give her the air of an older woman, sings a lot about home on the last leg of a 93-city tour following the launch in April of the group’s second album, “Sound and Color”, which topped the U.S. Billboard charts.
The former truck driver and postal service worker from Athens, Alabama, has a tattoo of the state with a heart on her arm.
“Where’s my home/where I belong?” she demands in “Rise to the Sun”, from the band’s debut 2012 album “Boys and Girls”.
From blues to rock to rodeo, Howard’s long list of influences - Prince, Jim Hendrix, Elvis Presley - ring out.
She takes a bow after “Hold On” in the middle of the set, the band’s breakthrough number one single, named 2013’s song of the year by Rolling Stone magazine and nominated for three Grammy awards.
The crowd is now warmed up, with sporadic screams of “I love you Brittany,” as she wails out songs from the new album.
“I saw the true you and you, true me,” she screams in “Gemini”, then she rips off her glasses, throws them to the floor, then walks off stage.
“One, two, three,” comes the encore.
“Y’ all are so nice, so refreshing. So far away from home and this is the last show.... Thank you for coming out, it’s a good time to spread love, a good time to spread joy, to love music and create.”
Just six days earlier, scores of people were gunned down in an attack at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris, where California’s rock band Eagles of Death Metal were playing. Following that attack, Alabama Shakes’ s Luxembourg set at the Sonic Visions festival was canceled.
Matt Troy, a 22-year-old student from New York, brought along 20-year-old Brittany Gregory at the last minute, because the friend she had planned to come with had not wanted to travel to London, worried about the threat of a terrorist attack. Tory’s parents were also anxious about her attending the gig.
“I was a little concerned because the band is American and has an American name – that was a bit of a red flag,” Troy said at the end of the show. “But the feeling was so good in here, I tried to not think about it.”
It was the third time that 60-year-old Sally Wilkes had seen the Alabama Shakes play. She traveled with her husband and son from Hertfordshire, outside London, to see the band.
“She (Howard) is just brilliant – she’s got a fantastic voice, so much energy, and she’s not one of those people that are manufactured. She’s what she is,” said Wilkes.
As Howard, who counts U.S. President Barack Obama and British megastar Adele as fans, sings that she’s “never saying goodbye”, the audience start clapping as if they’re watching a gospel band into the last song of the night and the tour.
“You ain’t alone /just let me be your ticket home.”
Reporting by Anjuli Davies and Jemima Kelly; Editing by Hugh Lawson