Courtney Barnett & Brittany Howard Shake Cary

Source: Darren Kataja

I’ve never written a concert review before. With a newcomer’s vigor, I took mental notes as I idled around the grounds of the pleasantly scenic Koka Booth Amphitheatre in Cary, NC before the start of the show. Two Earhole faves were playing: Courtney Barnett and Alabama Shakes.

Note the composition of the crowd - not really what you’d expect, given the billing; average age much closer to 30 than 20. Note the somewhat dissettling brightness - my friend informed me about Cary’s restrictive ordinances re: noise level, which require shows to start and end relatively early. Enjoy a $7 Budweiser as Barnett comes on; note her setlist and how she nails it, despite the light. Maybe I’ll be able to write about these things, I thought. This is the kind of stuff concert reviews focus on, right?

Brittany Howard, lead singer and lead guitarist of Alabama Shakes, shattered all of this uncertainty. From the moment she entered the stage to the moment she left, there was no doubt that this night was about her. This was her show, and all I had to do was write about it.

Source: Darren Kataja

Everything about the Shakes’ set begged for the audience to be hooked by Howard. Compositionally, she already occupies center stage on the Shakes’ recorded music, her booming voice and pinpoint guitar leading the charge to the listener’s ear. On actual center stage, Howard somehow elevated this sonic dominance to a higher level. Visually, her turquoise Gibson SG guitar stood in stark contrast against both her patterned red dress and the yellow light bathing the band behind her. Howard’s a big girl, too, in a way that perfectly suits her big voice and perhaps draws the audience further into her.

The thing about Brittany Howard is that she’d command the audience’s full attention even absent things like favorable song composition and lighting. Her stage presence is mesmerizing and magnetic. The way she moves fluidly during songs, punctuating the breaks in her singing with exaggerated head nod after exaggerated head nod. The way she exhibits supreme control over her voice and her guitar playing. The way she’s just as commanding of attention when she whisper-sings as when she lets it rip. The way she makes the audience want more of whatever she’s doing, however she’s doing it. A nearby observer probably said it best: “She is the band.”

It’s clear that the rest of the band is cool with Brittany’s attention-dominance. The group as a whole navigated their set with supreme confidence, following Howard’s lead. After roaring through concert highlight “Gimme All Your Love”, the band slowed it down, Howard ditched her guitar, and the audience saw all of her vocal prowess. She put absolutely all of her powerful self into the next two ballads. My friend called it “going in to Aretha mode”, and he wasn’t kidding. She shines live in a way that she (somewhat frustratingly) doesn’t always manage to replicate on recordings, and it was an impressive thing to see.

The band fumbled a bit with the closing of their set, choosing “Dunes” and “Gemini” as the final two songs and, quite frankly, missing an opportunity to finish out a strong set with a final show of strength. The crowd brought them back for an encore regardless, and they obliged with four songs including “Don’t Wanna Fight.” Perhaps the most telling sign of the band’s confidence was the absence of “Hold On” from the setlist and the lengthy encore. “You Ain’t Alone” was the closer of a nearly-perfect set, and remarkably I didn’t hear anyone but me grumble about “Hold On.”

Instead of giving the people what they wanted, Brittany gave the people what they needed: a full display of her ability to comprehensively lead this band, seemingly to anywhere they want to go.

Set Lists

Courtney Barnett

Elevator Operator
Illustration of Loneliness
Small Poppies
Dead Fox
Avant Gardener
Pedestrian At Best


"Pedestrian At Best"

Alabama Shakes

Rise To The Sun
Future People
Hang Loose
Always Alright (from Silver Lining’s Playbook soundtrack)
I Ain’t The Same
Guess Who
I’m Yours
The Greatest
Gimme All Your Love
Be Mine
Gospel Song
Interlude when Brittany gets her guitar again


Sound and Color
Don’t Wanna Fight
Over My Head
You Ain’t Alone

"I'm Yours"

"Gimme All Your Love"

"Don't Wanna Fight"