It’s Friday night in Austin, Texas, and it’s finally starting to feel like fall. Everywhere I look, people of all ages, shapes, colors, and walks of life are chatting, waiting in line for beer or food, or humming the infectiously catchy “Put Your Records On” that opener Corinne Bailey Rae has just closed her set with. The air is charged and thick; the Austin360 Amphitheatre awash with a dull hum of activity. This is a venue that hosts internationally attended world racing events, weekend-long sporting and music spectaculars like the X Games, and acts as big as Sir Elton John himself. Even still, tonight feels special – and it’s only going to get better.
So it Begins: A Festival of Sound and Color with the Alabama Shakes
I hear the eruption of the crowd before the band even steps into my line of sight. With all the casual, effortless grace of beings much older than their actual human years, The Alabama Shakes glide onto the dimly lit stage and smile broadly out at the audience. There is no expansive backdrop, no tricks or gimmickry; not even the band name illuminated in the background. Lead singer Brittany Howard simply slings her guitar on, asks if we’ve missed her, and immediately reminds us why we absolutely did.
The current tour is in support of Sound & Color, their second full-length album and a vast departure from their seminal debut Boys & Girls. Whereas the first album offered a straightforward, blues-tinged southern rock sampling, their follow-up showcased a band that was willing to spread their wings and fly out of their box; expanding their sound far beyond the parameters that guided the first album. For every toe-tapping, groove-tinged track that appears on Boys & Girls, there is a sweeping, existential sonic journey to unravel on Sound & Color.
For the sake of journalistic integrity, I decided to conduct a social experiment. Given my admittable bias and unquenchable thirst for all things Alabama Shakes-related, a virgin-eared neutral party was brought in to provide the balance that my Brittany Howard Fan Club membership deemed necessary. I noticed early on that while my handsome volunteer easily identified and connected with some of the tunes, others he was completely indifferent to. When not engaged by one of the songs, it was almost as if he was perpetually scanning the crowd for clues as to what apparent amazement he seemed to be missing.
As the band launched into fan-favorite “Hold On”, I again saw him smiling and bobbing along to the happy southern tune. “So, you like it?” I asked. “Some of it,” he answered pensively, “but some of it is weird. It’s almost like it’s two different bands”. My participant in this aural social experiment had instantly hit the nail on the head. Over the next few songs, he pointed out which songs fell into which category, and I had no trouble discerning where the disconnect was coming in – between Boys & Girls and Sound & Color, there lie two very different bands indeed.
The remainder of the show continues much the same way for the majority of the crowd. While the roots of the band shine conspicuously in the tracks from Boys & Girls, with its pure, simple origins and clear adherence to precise boundaries, the departure from this narrow scope and into the songs that are as complex and subjective as the ideas of sound and color themselves seem harder for many to digest. At times, in fact, it’s almost as if the audience is politely sitting through the Sound & Color tracks to earn another lick-laced barn burner.
Regardless of which side of the coin they were polishing, the backdrop and atmosphere never wavered in its dedication to the beautiful convergence of sound and color. For 85 transportive minutes, we lived in the swirling, vivid world they created for us, where sounds and colors work hand in hand to turn the once plain air into a sort of hazy, immersive, water-colored ambience. Accented with no more flash and pomp than the electric clash of bright white light accompanying sonic climaxes, the Alabama Shakes provided quite the experience.
After rolling through a few of the lesser-known tracks from Sound & Color, Howard and crew hit the night’s first noticeably high note with a slow burning jam. The lights went down and the band faded temporarily into the background. Standing in the only section of stage that remained illuminated, Brittany Howard delivered the title track from Sound & Color with all the gritty, soul-filled passion that makes her such an undeniable rock star. The combination of a stripped down stage, low lights, minimal instrumentals, and her deep, smoky voice over blue-tinged air was one of the most quietly spectacular moments of the night.
The band briefly walks off stage before returning for the encore their chanting devotees are begging for. They launch into the live staple “You Ain’t Alone” and deliver the already raucous and hungry crowd the night’s passionate and energetic high. As is evidenced in multiple live versions of this song (all of which remain in heavy rotation on YouTube, even years later), there is something extraordinary and indescribable about the reaction this particular track evokes in its audience. While every live experience is great in its own right, it really is one of those feelings that you have to experience in person to truly understand.
Next Up: An Intimate Evening with The Lumineers
Following the rapture of last week’s Alabama Shakes show, I stroll into the Austin360 Amphitheater with the general assumption that a mere six days later, there is nothing that could possibly top it. As I probably should have known, that assumption couldn’t be farther from the truth. The Lumineers take the stage and the crowd envelopes them in the sort of roaring, devoted appreciation normally reserved for heroes returning from war. This is our night, these are our people – and it is pure magic.
Lead singer Wesley Schultz kicks off the show by reminding us all that back in 2012, when they were still virtually unknown, The Lumineers loaded up their van and headed to Texas. They had scheduled something like 12 shows over the course of three long days during Austin’s SXSW Music Festival. Crowds across the city fell spontaneously in love with the simplistic joy and barebones songcraft that permeated every set they played that week. Their first album came out a few short weeks later, garnering its own rave critical and fan reviews, and the rest, as they say, is history – they haven’t slowed down since.
Longtime fans of the band are likely familiar with the song “Hey Ho”, the standout track from their double platinum self-titled debut album, which still rules airwaves nearly four years later. Its accompanying video depicts a swirling, colorful celebration of life, complete with twinkling white lights, cascades of confetti, and dancing, glowing, shiny happy people. If you have seen that video, then you have a glimmer of an idea as to what it feels like to see this band live.
Tonight they start the set with one of the lesser known tracks from Cleopatra, their new album and namesake of their current world tour. This easily flows into “Ophelia”, Cleopatra’s smash first single, and the crowd once again erupts in joyous gratitude. Exuberant fan favorites “Flowers in Your Hair” and “Ho Hey” follow, at which point Schultz asks the audience “Hey – I know you all want photos and video of tonight and we want you to have it. But can we all agree to put our cameras and phones away after this song and just all be together?”
For many artists, this wouldn’t have worked out how they planned. Mob mentality can be a fickle beast; one that doesn’t always give you the feedback you were hoping for. But on this night, amongst a sea of smartphones and camera screens, the crowd actually cheered this request. And for the remainder of the show, there were less flashes and recording screens over the heads of the digitally-fueled audience than I’ve seen at a major concert in years. For this one night, we were content to be collectively spellbound by the wonderment unfolding onstage – and at no point did the band disappoint.
Halfway through their set, The Lumineers grabbed their instruments and leapt off the stage into the crowd. They wove their way through the mosh pit, over a sea of chairs and stairs, until finally climbing a small barrier to reassemble amongst the cheap seats of the lawn where a mini makeshift stage had been erected. For the next few songs, audience members who had primarily been relegated to viewing the show from giant screens flanking the stage suddenly had front row seats. It was the most heartwarming moment of the night, to see the superfans in the back get an intimate experience with the band they loved; the band who cared enough to know how important and unforgettable that simple act was.
Throughout the show, lead singer Wesley Schultz shared some of the stories that helped to shape their beloved catalog of songs. Fans were given a peek behind the curtain, into the innermost sanctum of the band. Unknown uncles lost to war, a father who fought the same cancer battle as his mother before him, and the aftermath of soul-shattering loss were just a few of the secrets shared with their adoring audience.
It’s hard to put into words just what makes The Lumineers so incredibly special. They are that girl in high school with the perfect life who is also so infuriatingly nice, you can’t even hate her for it. They have attained worldwide critical and fan acclaim, but you still get the sense that they care far less about money or fame than about the simple act of creating beautiful music that people actually connect to. Just a few poignantly plucked notes from one of the many treasures in their catalog can cover my whole body in goosebumps, leaving the hairs on my arms and head raised long after the song has ended. It is in this way that they manage to perpetually leave listeners in a state of enchantment.
Prior to a brief three song encore, in which they indulged fans with a stirring rendition of the unendingly popular “Stubborn Love” (which was also featured on President Barack Obama’s August 2016 Spotify playlist), The Lumineers closed out their set with the celebratory “Big Parade” as multi-colored confetti burst out from the stage and swirled whimsically into the starstruck crowd.
The Big Finale: The Superbowl of Fall Lineups at Formula 1
The Formula 1 United States Grand Prix comes to Austin October 21-23, and with it come some of the biggest stars in music. For fans of pop radio or late-night television, the Superbowl of Fall lineups would be a more apt title for the headliners set to grace the special “Super Stage” at Formula 1 this year (not to mention, these acts are big enough to actually headline their own Superbowl halftime show).
Her relationships (and even more so, her breakups) frequently make front page headlines. She holds the record for the most-ever sold out performances at L.A.’s Staples Center by a solo artist. Last year, her 1989 World Tour grossed $250 million, making it one of the highest-grossing tours of all time. Her friends are the biggest movie stars and supermodels on the planet, and her cat Meredith has more Instagram followers than most small American towns have inhabitants. Austin, Taylor Swift is coming.
Love her or hate her, the numbers don’t lie. Ms. Swift has racked up an astonishing 571 total award nominations in her short career, and she is still in her twenties. Of those, she has won ten Grammy Awards, ten People’s Choice Awards, 25 Teen Choice Awards, 23 Billboard Music Awards, 19 American Music Awards, and a whopping 49 Academy of Country Music Awards. She currently holds five Guinness World Records.
Following her nearly decade-long total domination of the country music world, she even managed to achieve the impossible – a total overhaul of her image, complete with a full-on genre switch from country music singer to pop superstar. What’s more impressive is that she managed to do so without losing much of her original fan base along the way. Her followers (dubbed “Swifties”) are notorious for being the most fiercely loyal fans in the business, and her A-list squad all but invented the recent #squadgoals movement. The public is endlessly and inexplicably fascinated with her, and that alone should make for an exciting sell-out show.
Sunday night closes out the races with a couple of near-surprise guests. The Weeknd was originally set to headline the big F1 weekend’ final day, but due to schedule constraints surrounding the release of his forthcoming album Starboy, he regrettably had to cancel the gig just two weeks beforehand. After a quick scramble, it was announced that the hit-making dance phenom Usher would be the weekend’s big closing act, along with legendary The Roots band.
Usher is responsible for some of the most radio-friendly hip hop tracks of the last decade. His music has been featured in countless motion pictures and can be heard on pop and R&B stations alike. His hook-heavy song offerings have a massive widespread appeal, and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who couldn’t name at least one of his song titles. His live shows are said to be exciting and dynamic, and I can attest that the dance moves alone are worth the trip. For a last-minute fill-in, Usher is about as good as it gets.
In addition to an extensive catalog of their own critically-acclaimed material, The Roots serve as the house band on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Given that the majority of their days are taken up by their full-time gig, it is rare that the band actually gets out and plays massive arena shows anymore. However, they used to be a tour de force, spending as much, if not more, time on the road as they did in the studio. Their live shows, as evidenced even on The Tonight Show, are lively, dynamic, and emanate stellar musicianship. This is a group of insanely talented musicians taking a Sunday night to relish in the hype of the big final show, and they have never, ever disappointed.
The month of October has long been notorious for offering musical treats aplenty. It brings wide-ranging acts to the Live Music Capital of the World and offers enough variety to serve even the most discerning palates. And this year, Circuit of the Americas is without a doubt hosting the biggest shows of 2016. So big, in fact, that the October 22nd and 23rd concerts can’t even be held at the existing Austin360 Amphitheatre. Instead, these shows will take place on a “Super Stage Festival Lawn” being built especially for the Formula 1 concerts. I, for one, love the sound of that.
All hail Circuit of the Americas, Austin’s new king of the fall lineup.