It takes a moment of quiet for Brittany Howard’s first solo show in the UK to explode. Halfway through the Alabama Shakes singer’s set, she stands alone on stage with an acoustic guitar, to sing Short and Sweet, a delicate little number from her forthcoming album, Jaime. Without other instruments to compete – the sound had felt cold and hard for the first part of the night, despite the room’s mugginess – her voice begins to fill the space.
The song’s purpose, though, is to be a palate cleanser, as she ramps up the set to a devastating conclusion. It’s followed by a couple of covers – the New Birth’s You Are What I’m All About, then Sam and Dave’s When Something Is Wrong With My Baby – putting the audience in the mood for a soul party, before she rips the rug out from under them with the two most intense and political songs from Jaime.
First, Goat Head is a cry from childhood about what happens to biracial families in the southern states: “When I first got made / Guess I made these folks mad,” she sings. “Who slashed my dad’s tyres and put a goat’s head in the back?” And then, to finish the main set, 13th Century Metal, where keyboards like slashing morse code and Nate Smith’s insistent drums provide the bed for her plea for compassion. “We are all brothers and sisters!” she cries, strobes flashing red, as if warning of the bloody consequences of division.
It’s a magnificent way to finish the set – and Howard almost tops it in the encores, where a jazzy interpretation of the Beatles’ Revolution gets the crowd to stand, before History Repeats gets them to dance – and a reminder that the best artists don’t just take to the stage to play their songs, they shepherd you to where they want you. Before Short and Sweet, everything had been comfortable, nice, pleasant. Jaime is largely constructed from the building blocks of early 70s soul and R&B – a little Hi Records here, a little deep soul there – and it’s hard not to warm to a song as enveloping as Stay High. But it needed that jolt – one provided by the something still and small – to take the show to transcendence.