Brittany Howard Brings Every Emotion to the Ace Hotel In her solo debut, the Alabama Shakes frontwoman is confident, compelling and a complete joy to watch
LOS ANGELES, CA- Brittany Howard hit the Theatre at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles last week for a joyous two-night stand in support of her powerful debut solo album, Jaime.
The Alabama Shakes frontwoman wasted no time, energizing the sold-out theater by launching straight into three strong tracks from her solo offering: “He Loves Me,” “Georgia” and the album’s first single, the irresistible “Stay High.”
Because she’s playing the guitar a bit more sparingly on this tour, Howard was free to command the whole stage, gesturing expressively, dancing like nobody’s watching, wiping sweat from her brow — investing so completely in the moment that you can’t help but feel her every emotion just as completely.
She has assembled an adept band for this tour, and together they bring enough funk to the stage that the set wouldn’t have felt complete without their heart-wrenching cover of “Breakdown” from Prince’s 2014 album, Art Official Age. It would be a dangerous choice for most singers — Prince’s voice reaches some truly dizzying heights at the song’s peak — but Howard nailed the delivery, harnessing a blend of vocal power and subtlety gifted to few artists.
She knew when to use that power and when to hold it back, transporting the crowd to what could have easily been a gospel service during their jubilant covers of Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher” and The Beatles’ “Revolution,” but also taking the stage alone with an acoustic guitar for “Short and Sweet,” a track from Jaime about relishing those moments in life in which you’re aware you’re experiencing something special.
There’s little doubt that Howard is in the middle of one of those moments now. For those who have followed her career, a solo record may not be a surprising turn. A creative restlessness had already manifested two side projects, the rock outfit Thunderbitch and the country-tinged Bermuda Triangle. Even Alabama Shakes’ acclaimed second album, Sound & Color, showed a band that had already evolved past the more straightforward, bluesy rock of its debut, Girls & Boys.
There were no Alabama Shakes songs in Howard’s set, leaving some to wonder what that choice meant if anything. But, in Howard’s own words, this tour is about her expression alone — no shade to the Shakes.
“We’re a family,” she told Rolling Stone of her bandmates — bassist Zac Cockrell is playing on the Jaime tour. “Those are my bro-bros for life. But right now they’re just letting me do my thing. If I did the same songs and the same everything, I’d be so miserable. I’d be so bored. I wouldn’t care about heaps of cash, swimming in a cash swimming pool. It does not matter to me.”
Those who attend Howard’s shows only familiar with the Shakes’ brand of R&B-tinged rock won’t be disappointed. Her work is still fueled by a familiar soulfulness, and the blues and psych elements that made their way into Sound & Color find even more footing here. But, fully on her own, Howard heads into new territory both musically and lyrically, diving into the depths of her upbringing in a way she simply couldn’t while part of a larger unit.
Named after her sister, who died of a rare cancer as a teenager, Jaime is bold and direct, often sweet, and a bit experimental. It’s deeply personal, sharing Howard’s history and experiences as a queer, mixed-race woman through incisive commentary on politics, race and more.
“My mama was brave / To take me outside / ’Cause mama is white / And daddy is black / When I first got made / Guess I made these folks mad,” she croons on “Goat Head,” recalling the hate crime from her childhood in which someone slashed her father’s tires and left a severed goat head in the back of the car.
It’s a potent, jarring song, and it certainly feels inappropriate to tap your foot to the refrain “Goat head in the back.” And yet, a lightness pervaded Howard’s set, partly because the lyrics are wrapped in an undeniable groove, but also because the album embraces positivity and hopefulness whenever it can.
On jazzy standout track “13th Century Metal,” Howard promises to save her energy because it’s needed for a cause greater than herself: “And that cause is to spread the enlightenment / Of love, compassion, and humanity to those who are not touched by its light.”
Her chant of “We are all brothers and sisters” rivaled the fire of any preacher and drew cheers of solidarity from the crowd at the Ace. She again encouraged the audience to look out for one another before closing the show with “Run to Me,” the track that also closes Jaime.
“The reason I like doing this song — and it really means a lot to me — is because you never know who you’re standing next to and what they’re going through,” she said from the stage. “I wrote this song for myself when I was going through a particularly hard time and I didn’t know how to talk to anybody. I wrote this song to myself to encourage myself, and I’d like to share that with you.”
Howard’s struggles may have given her a direction for her album, but it was a joy that brought it to fruition, and it’s joy she leaves with the audience.
“The song exists, primarily, just to stay positive,” she said in a recent episode of the podcast Song Exploder, where she breaks down “Stay High.” “It’s hard. I know what it’s like to leave the job that you just worked 13 hours at, and you’re soaked in sweat, and you’re thirsty, and your feet hurt and your knees hurt. You go home and you’re like, ‘I can’t wait to practice tonight.’ Because that’s what brought me joy — playing music, making music. I could not wait to go to practice after a day of work like that, because it made me happy and that’s what I lived for. That’s what I was trying to give to people: Look for that thing that lights you up. Look for that thing that brings you joy.”