You can hardly fault this generation of musicians for reaching back into the history of American popular music to find inspiration. The breed that preceded it certainly didn’t offer an abundance of artistic innovation, given its stubborn rockism and/or 1980s fixation. In fact, nostalgia has been running amok in pop culture, from Urban Outfitters to American Idol. As such, music is devolving more than it’s evolving.
And it’s not like these acts are always putting their own spin on the sounds of the past. Take Alabama Shakes, which made its Las Vegas debut at The Pearl on July 19. The quartet (expanding to a quintet onstage) sounds like Janis Joplin fronting Exile on Main Street-era Rolling Stones, or Tina Turner partnering up with Sam Cooke. Which is to say there’s a soulful, charismatic female singer (Brittany Howard) fronting a bunch of dudes who likely didn’t start their bands because of The Strokes or LCD Soundsystem.
Alabama Shakes does little to bring R&B- and soul-flavored rock into the 21st century; it celebrates revivalism, not revisionism, which one can glean on last year’s debut, Boys & Girls. Howard is defensive about the “retro” tag, likely because she wants to believe her band is putting its stamp on something beloved, not rehashing it. But if Alabama Shakes is guilty of stylistic mimicry, it can be at least partially forgiven because it absolutely nails the embodiment (and bridging) of the Motown/Stax/Sun Studio trifecta in its music.
And more importantly, pop music has a new vocal revelation in Howard. Like Adele, she’s not some bombshell who will spit out whatever her producers hand her, or feels the need to work the stage like a street corner. She’s often stationary behind her mic stand, playing a guitar — and we’re not talking two-chord fret fumbling or autopilot strumming — and projecting what sounds like a lifetime of human interaction that fits squarely in the storytelling tradition of American blues. Her lyrics are simple but visceral, and when she wants to rachet her evocation up a few notches beyond that gift of a voice she’s got, she’s not above peppering her observations with F-bombs, as she did during “Always Alright,” where the tense resignation of her words juxtaposed the freewheelin’ anthemry behind her, and again during the back-to-back ballads “Boys & Girls” and “Be Mine,” the former earning the band sustained applause and the latter compelling Howard to finally come out from the stage and wail away, which also delighted the crowd.
But Howard doesn’t throw everything she’s got at her audience. She has well-honed control and timing, which both augments and authenticates her emotional release. Combine that with the versatile, robust crew behind her — close your eyes and it could be My Morning Jacket, sans the instrumental stretches and Neil Young worship — and you have a resounding, if cautious act that sounds remarkably accomplished only four years in.
Though the Beauty Bar patio has hosted more than a few Americana-leaning acts — Old Crow Medicine Show, Lucero, The Clydesdale — it still feels surreal to watch a bunch of retro-dudded-up hipsters recreate Appalachia smack in the middle of downtown Las Vegas, as was evidenced on July 18. Los Angeles quintet Lord Huron isn’t messing around with its folk-rock; it must look the part, too, down to the backdrop that looks like the cover to Cold Mountain. And though its sound isn’t quite old-timey enough — it’s more Jim James than Ralph Stanley, to be sure — singer/guitarist Ben Schneider and crew still manage to strum, harmonize and shuffle back to a simpler era, while lyrically evoking a Thoreau that might’ve settled south of the Mason-Dixon line.
For about an hour, Lord Huron played a game of Guess Our Influence? with a nearly packed audience, channeling Band of Horses at one moment (“The Man Who Loves Forever”), Paul Simon the next (“We Went Wild,” complete with Schneider continuing the frontman-with-a-drum trend popularized at least locally by Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds), followed by Crosby, Stills & Nash (“She Lit a Fire”). Lord Huron landed the execution every time, appearing fresh and energized — this was its first date on its summer U.S. tour — but it didn’t sound particularly inspired, nor did it let loose much, Schneider’s percussion notwithstanding.
The three final numbers of the main set (“Time To Run,” “Brother,” “The Stranger”) did demonstrate a knack for building to a climax, which thankfully meant Lord Huron wasn’t so in love with its sound that it remained fixed on its own collective navel, or couldn’t be bothered with other elements of its songs. That bodes well for its future, and if the current crop of nostalgists signals anything, it’s the hope that they get the throwback romanticism out of its system on the first record, and reduce it to mere foundation for the next.