From the outset, it was an odd lineup. Kink FM, in conjunction with Portland’s Rose Festival, was to host Alabama Shakes, the upstart buzz band that’s garnered attention on both late-night TV and at festivals across the country. But Alabama Shakes, for all its popularity, was never promoted as the headliner. That honor would go to Everest, a band that neither Ray or I — both music aficionados – had ever heard. Sandwiched in between the acts were another two groups whose profiles could have only been lower if they’d formed backstage before the show.
One of those groups was Imagine Dragons, which couldn’t decide who it wanted to rip off more: U2 or The Killers. (It did neither very well.) And Everest … well, Ray and I walked out after two songs. The performances failed to thrill, but the truth is: After the previous two sets, neither band stood a chance. They were doomed from the start.
We arrived at the Willamette River waterfront 45 minutes early, eagerly anticipating Alabama Shakes. The set started 15 minutes late, but all was forgiven after the first few soulful notes of “Goin’ to the Party.” The tender track gave way to the band’s first single and biggest hit to date, “Hold On.” I’m not sure what it says about a band that slots their most popular track second in the set list. But whatever it says, it says a lot.
The crowd sufficiently hyped, Alabama Shakes ripped through most of their debut album, “Boys & Girls,” adding a few rarities to the mix.
“Rise to the Sun” provided one of several highlights halfway through the set. Lead singer Brittany Howard somehow managed to take these lyrics, which look banal on paper …
“I wake up
Rise to the sun
I go to work
And I come back home”
… and turn them into an emotional declaration, full of fury and defiance. Her tender voice, already compelling on record, carried a weight that betrayed a singer fresh from her first record. Howard clearly hasn’t adjusted to life on stage just yet — she spent most of the set alternately staring into the downtown Portland skyline behind the crowd and closing her eyes as she sang — but a voice like hers is enough to command a crowd and set the tone for a fiery stage presence. She loosened up as the set wore on but only seemed comfortable in the midst of the group’s soulful, alt-country-tinged tracks.
“Hold On” might be the band’s biggest hit, but the standout selection from its brief time on stage was “You Ain’t Alone.” Howard’s pained cries and outbursts are impacting enough on record. To hear her belt out the track, getting a little louder, a little more unhinged with each line, was one of the most chill-inducing experiences I can recall at a concert.
Alabama Shakes ended its set with a bizarre (but ultimately fun) one-two punch: “Heavy Chevy,” a bonus track from the band’s debut album, and “Heat Lightning,” an as-of-yet unreleased song. Playing their biggest hit early in the set, ending it with B-sides and unreleased tracks … what’s the difference when you’re as polished and downright good as Alabama Shakes?
The brief break gave Ray and I a few minutes to try and process what we had just seen. A group touring behind their first record doesn’t usually deal that big of a blow. Between packing an emotional punch and Howard’s emotional crooning, there’s little doubt that Alabama Shakes is destined for bigger and better things.
Not long after dissecting the set, Ray and I turned our attention to the stage, where the next band — Vintage Trouble — was getting ready for what would turn out to be another stellar set.
(Vintage Trouble lead singer Ty Taylor / Photo courtesy a.breitsprecher)
Ray knew of Vintage Trouble solely as a band that had generated buzz at the South by Southwest music festival earlier this year. Even that was more than I knew beforehand.
What struck fans first about Vintage Trouble were the visuals. The foursome showed up on stage, clad in full suits, complete with ties, vests, blazers, and fedoras. I remarked to Ray early on that there was more money in suits on stage than there ever had been in my bank account. And it would have come across as incredibly gimmicky … if only Vintage Trouble wasn’t so damn good.
Performing a mix of blues, soul, and straight-up rock, Vintage Trouble absolutely demanded the crowd’s attention every second they were on stage. If the blues riffs and tight musicianship weren’t getting the job done, lead singer Ty Taylor was dancing around, writhing against the microphone pole, or extolling the crowd to sing along — sometimes all at once.
There was scarcely a second of downtime between tracks, which gave Taylor plenty of opportunities to showcase his surprising range. The Al Green-inspired “Nobody Told Me” provided the set’s sweetest, most soulful moment, while “Blues Hand Me Down” kicked the crowd into a hip-shaking fervor. And on it went, for the better part for 45 minutes. Vintage Trouble played a gritty, tight, rocking, energetic set, allowing the crowd to breathe again only after finishing its final note.