Photo by MATT SHAVER
Wiping the sweat from her brow, Brittany Howard paused between songs Friday night at The Fillmore to wag her finger at the crowd with a warning: “Be careful now. Don’t fuck around and drive me up.” Fans swallowed her words in a roar of cheers that would do just that, after only two songs in a set that featured every track off of her just released solo full-length debut Jaime. Unable to speak over the unending applause, Howard gave up trying, blowing a kiss to the crowd with a mouthed “love you” before turning back to her band to start up the next song.
Howard’s music inspires a devout cult following. As the frontwoman of Alabama Shakes, she received four Grammys, played at the Obama White House, and set off a nouveau roots-rock revival. Much of her fans’ worship derives from Howard’s unparalleled voice, which holds both the honeyed soul-blues of Etta James and the gravelly funk of Betty Davis. Waiting for the show to begin last night, members of the crowd name-dropped Thunderbitch and Bermuda Triangle — Howard’s other projects — and boasted obsessive collections of special pressings and rare merchandise from the Shakes. Some even expressed hopes that she would play stripped-down versions of tracks from Sound & Color or Boys & Girls.
But when her set finally began, a deep blue stage lifted to a sunset orange spotlight on Howard alone with a new backing band. Easing into the first line of “He Loves Me,” a song about Howard’s relationship with God, she swayed back and forth, arms uplifted, in a mirrored silver cape that made her look part-boxer part-priestess – a spiritual fighter, if you will, channeling the power of her spirit animal in a large portrait of a black panther onstage behind her. Whipping her head around with a wide smile at every guitar lick, she unleashed her new music with a glowing pride in the risk of its vulnerability, a kind unlike any she’d ever expressed with the Shakes or other bands.
These are songs that only Howard could sing. Unlike “Hold On,” which grew into a wildly popular anthem of universal encouragement despite Howard’s references to her own spiritual guide in life, songs off of Jaime speak more specifically to personal memories of hate crimes against her family and her life’s mission to “give it to love.” She interspersed these eleven tracks with a cover of Prince’s “The Breakdown,” saying she just found out that the song was a favorite of Prince himself, and another of Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher,” that got the whole room rippling in dance along with her. Between these and Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, which played through speakers before Howard’s set, it was easy to trace the storied foundation of her music from early jazz, funk, blues, and rock, to the fusion of all of them in Jaime.
Though Howard always prioritized the soul in her music, Jaime espouses lyrics of love over marching rhythms that make the album sound like one of protest. After all, what’s more defiant than proclaiming a full belief in the power of love in a day and age when hate seems to rule? Howard’s brand of love is infectious and inclusive. By letting us into songs about the painful side of her family history and personal relationships, she shows us the way to use love to march onward and overcome. She finished off her set with two of the most intense songs on Jaime: “Goat Head” and “13th Century Metal.” The former is a song that she says was one of the hardest for her to write on the album, and one that brought an abrupt stop to the lighthearted dancing of earlier songs in a story that always makes listeners nervously cry in its test of compassion. But the latter of the pair rounded out this deep-seated pain with a poetic profession of love and unity over improvised keyboard riffs hopping with the electricity of the words over them.
The encore brought an as-yet-unrecorded song, “Bring Your Love to Me,” that builds from a romantic quietude to guitar-backed wails of desire, and a revved-up bluesy version of the Beatles’ “Revolution,” with an Elmore-James-like bassline walking underneath it. Howard ended the night the way she ends Jaime. Fans, knowing it would be the last song, applauded for nearly three minutes straight before a beaming Howard could tell them, “I wrote this song for myself, for the times when I’m not always confident like this, running around with a cape on.” Wiping a couple of tears from her eyes and thanking fans for all of the love and energy they gave her, she launched into the echoing “Run to Me,” an endorsement of a faith in herself, a sort of inner strength we all doubt in our own dark moments of isolation. Only Howard could bring them a burning light. — SOPHIE BURKHOLDER