We were pretty bummed when we noticed that for some unknown reason, The Alabama Shakes had been pulled from the SoundLand lineup. We'd been checking ’em out online, and they'd quickly become one of the most anticipated sets of the weekend. But Third Man came to the rescue just a couple days before the festival began, adding the Athens, Ala., soul group to the front end of its Friday lineup.
Well, thank Jehoshaphat that situation got rectified, because the Shakes threw down what was without a doubt one of the best performances of the festival. The Spin takes no official stance on reincarnation, but watching frontwoman Brittany Howard work her mojo, we had the eerie sensation that the spirit of Otis Redding had been reborn in this young Alabama soul singer: Her spine-tingling voice, tent-revival enthusiasm and most of all, mastery of phrasing and dynamics had us thinking of Redding's electric take on “Try a Little Tenderness” during the 1967 Stax Europe tour.
It's rare for a band that just released their debut EP to sound this good live. In addition to singing her heart out, Howard threw out a few raw, furious licks on her Gibson SG, and her bandmates, who all look to be well south of 30, displayed a taste and maturity far beyond their years. Their set had the added magic that transpires when a kick-ass band plays in front of crowd made up almost exclusively of folks who've never seen them before.
As good as the Shakes sounded on the performance vids we'd seen, they were even better at SoundLand — maybe it was the excitement of playing at JW's pleasure palace. (We're not sure if Jack caught their set, but we spotted him wandering the room later in the evening. And one thing's for certain: With their vintage Stax-inspired sound, the Shakes are about as ripe for the TMR vinyl treatment as a band can be. We know TMR planned to record the headliner acts — Here's hoping they caught the evening's openers.) Oh, and catch the Shakes opening Nikki Lane's album release show this Friday at The Basement. It'll be worth it.
Up next was the frenzied, spasmodic attack of power trio Hans Condor. We were immediately taken with their raw, unbridled energy, which brought to mind that awesome vintage video of The MC5 doing “Ramblin' Rose.” Tasmanian Devilish frontman Charles Condor jumped down into the writhing pit of humanity near the front of the stage and shredded for a bit, even allowing a few audience members to grab the guitar neck and get in on the auditory action. Though The Spin's AARP-eligible contingent isn't familiar with the Condor's oeuvre, we do seem to recall hearing the lyric “No pussy for you” at some point, if that helps. Or maybe that was something our date said later in the evening. At our age, the details get foggy.
Following the flight of the Condor was PUJOL. The band's catchy melodies recalled (in a good way) the infectious punk hooks of a band from our long-gone heyday, The Replacements. There's something undeniably likable about Daniel Pujol — it's hard to put our finger on it, but rarely do people dishing out snotty punk ditties come across quite so affable. It's proof that you don't have feign a Joey Ramone sneer to bash out high-quality garage rock. (On a side note, it took our eyes a little while to adjust to bass player Mitch Jones' hairdo, which was sort of a half-rocker/half-Thompson Twins affair, but hey, we're into free expression, and we give it points for originality.)
Human Eye was the top-billed musical act of the evening, though after enduring the roughly hour-long set, we're hard-pressed to understand why. They dished out a bizarre, meandering amalgam of punk, prog and psych-rock that failed to capture the high points of any of those genres. Frontman Tim Lampinen, aka Tim Vulgar, indulged in long, aimless guitar solos (which occasionally got interesting for a few seconds if he stepped on the right pedal). His playing sounded like a 14-year-old kid who just discovered the pentatonic scale but had yet to discover the concept of rhythm. Maybe there's some level of irony to their awfulness — but we just don't get it.
That's not to say we don't appreciate irony. After all, the only reason we were in it this long was to hear an absolute master of the phenomenon: Neil Hamburger, the world's best worst comedian. In fact, his routine is like an irony hall of mirrors.
The man with the world's most ostentatious comb-over didn't disappoint. Hamburger was in fine form, from a barrage of Britney Spears jokes, to jabs at Smash Mouth and Nickelback, to an uproarious tribute to ice cream, which included the following joke, at the expense of the Biebs: “Why did Justin Bieber ejaculate onto his hot fudge sundae? Because his management said he couldn't ejaculate onto his fans till he turns 18.” His relentless assault on the recording engineer — TMR documented the show for an upcoming vinyl release — was pretty hysterical. But the unequivocal highlight of the evening: a one-liner about gay guys that morphed into a surreal five-minute meltdown of hilarity that no explanation would do justice. (To fully appreciate it, you'll have to hunt down the TMR vinyl when it hits the streets.) Suffice to say we laughed so hard we pulled a muscle or two.
A rush to get down to Third Man in time to catch The Shakes pre-sundown set time saw us set out on the town whilst forgoing our usual dinner, six-pack shotgun blast and10-shot Jameson chug pre-gaming ritual. And, most unfortunately, Third Man didn’t furnish show-goers with a bar this time around. The joint was dry as a raisin in a loaf of owl scat, and we had whistles to wet. By set’s end we had the shakes in more ways than one. So, upwardly mobile, ingenious problem-solvers that we are, we made a night-long habit of sneaking off between bands to amble up to Cannery Ballroom — where the night’s lineup was like an AMA week preview — to patronize the food trucks and the booze gallery.
Such journeys found us trying Mercy/Cannery co-owner Chark Kinsolving's new BBQ truck, Squeals on Wheels. Good shit. And perfect sustenance to fortify our innards for another night of checking account-draining debauchery. While venturing into the red, we managed to catch snippets of sets by country-rocker Robert Ellis, who went Jim Varney on our assess with an earnest, somewhat somber, but markedly sane and sensibly balanced cover of Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years,” as followed by neo-heartland rocker Jason Isbell and his 400 Unit, who simultaneously conjured John Mellencamp and Mike Ness as he hit the stage to a hundreds-strong mass entrance of wristband-boasters.
The majority of those roots-rock-ready peeps who filled The Cannery were almost unquestionably there to see still-on-the-rise-with-a-vengeance, now two-time Scene cover boy Justin Townes Earle. Dressed up like a bespectacled, Eisenhower-era family physician on a house call, Earle — with accompanying double-bassist and fiddle-player in tow — might as well have been a firefighter running out of burning building in slow motion, baby in hand, judging by the ear-splitting applause that greeted him. We caught three or four trad-folk gems from Americana’s favorite local son — the highlight of which was the gorgeous, strings-finger-picked-like-raindrops, Grapes of Wrath-worthy working man’s requiem “They Killed John Henry.” Once again, good shit.
Apart from the brimming size of the crowd, the earth-toned, SoundLand-goes-heartland scene inside Cannery couldn’t have contrasted more with the roof-raisin’-sans-roof smorgasbord of beats and rhymes at work less than 10 blocks away over at the 12th Avenue Block Party stage — that was pretty much the party of the year. The Spin was excited going into it — we spend an unhealthy amount of time listening to local hip-hop, if you haven't heard — and the SoundLand crew did not disappoint. When we arrived, Chancellor Warhol was on the outdoor stage sounding like a boss, while Call it Dope! got things poppin' in Mai.
We were more than a little proud to watch the outside crowd chanting along with Sam & Tre's “We Do” while DJ Kidsmeal bounced in front of the huge LCD screen looking like an overexcited 8 bit video game character. Big K.R.I.T. dropped that “Country Shit” just the way we like, while Dee Goodz got the respectably filled-out Mai to go “Bananas.” Openmic pulled a huge, super-hyped crowd back into Mai, where Stix Izza went the full-band route and basically left our brains as a smoldering crater.
The highlight, of course, was onetime-Antioch-by-way-of-Alabama-bred, rightfully hyped emcee Yelawolf’s rightfully anticipated set. Less than a year ago, this heavily tatted skater boi was playing Phat Kaps, and now he’s got a full posse and stage-spanning LED screen behind him and thousands of kids passin’ joints, raising hands, rapping along to rhymes like “Pop the Trunk” and his collaboration with Big Boi, “You Ain’t No DJ.”
Two words: Star power. Yelawolf’s got it. Seriously, at this moment in time, the rap game is his to lose. His onstage charisma was captivating as he dove into a crowd that ripped his shirt to pieces. His cocksure, Southern-fried cadence flows out the mic like butter. And his effortless ability to master the ceremonies and bring the party was undeniable. So confidant was Yela in his approach that he went as far as to warm our hearts by bringing his parents — who looked like your garden-variety ‘Bama, middle-class squares — to the stage. Well done.
Down the road at The Basement, we entered not long after Action! started. The crowd was still pretty small at the early-ish hour, but slowly filed in during their set, seemingly engaged, especially by more up-tempo numbers like "Sand Piper." And whoo boy, Tiger High! The Spin heard that folks from the band’s native Memphis drove up to watch them play, and did they ever make the right decision. Playing with (distracting) projections on an adjacent wall, their straight rock 'n' roll set was over all too soon. New favorite band material, right here.
Richie performed double duty, not only as show referee (complete with the striped shirt and whistle that have become part of Richie's awesome new daily wardrobe), but his own hype man as well, announcing each song title before getting into it. The best moment was “Animal Print” when a dude, serendipitously dressed in all animal-print, started to dance up front. Later he was tonguing Richie’s guitar. I know that’s right!
“Tennessee is ... throbbing,” said frontwoman Coco Hames during The Ettes' set, hesitant to use the word "throbbing" but well aware — between Gonerfest and SoundLand — that The Volunteer State is poppin' off right now. The Ettes were playing their — to borrow an adjective — throbbing garage-pop numbers to a room now filled like a sardine tin, closing out one of the most traditionally “rock” nights of the fest and leaving us with the melody of Wicked Will's "Excuse" bouncing around in our booze-addled mind like a BB in a tin can.