Brittany Howard: My Favorite Live Acts

Alabama Shakes frontwoman picks her must-see performers, from Bruce to Deadmau5

Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes performs in Newport, United Kingdom.
Caitlin Mogridge/Redferns via Getty Images
Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes performs in Newport, United Kingdom.
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As frontwoman of Alabama Shakes, Brittany Howard knows a thing or two about working up a crowd. "Depending on the atmosphere, once you get inside the electricity into the room, it can be loose, or it can be really tight," she says. Howard submitted a ballot for our new issue celebrating the Best Live Acts Now, with a list ranging Miguel to Björk. We singled out some of her highlights and asked her to explain her picks. "I just went back and saw who was the most moving to me, who put the most energy into it," she says.

Charles Bradley

I first saw him on YouTube playing at a bicycle shop for SXSW and was brought to tears. “Who is this dude?” I got to meet him at Sasquatch and he’s pretty much the only person I’ve ever been like a superfan, freaking out [about]. Bruce Springsteen is up there, but Charles doesn’t have the years of touring and the fan base that Bruce has and Charles is working really hard and a lot of people are hearing him for the first time, so that’s why I wanted to put him first. What a thing to do to blow people away that are just seeing him for the first time. He sings about his life and a lot of things are hard for him to talk about, but he does it because he’s trying to help people. It’s just real. Other people go through the motions, but he’s doing the real thing. That’s why it’s a breath of fresh air, like ‘Wow this is what music’s about.’” 

My Morning Jacket 

I saw them at a festival in Denmark and I had no idea what I was in for. The jam sessions that flow, they just move and feel the crowd out — it’s just kind of epic. They're an epic band. Every song they have could be their closing song. My favorite is “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” because the crowd sings it. It’s crazy how chill [Jim James] is, and then he gets onstage and he has this towel on his head and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, he has all these little good luck charms and stuff onstage. It’s really foreign to me.

Radiohead

I’ve only seen them once,  Bonnaroo 2012, and that’s how good it was. I’d listened to the music but I never really got into it, but then I went and saw them live and it was like "Whoa." The light show was an artform and then here’s these guys onstage with these pedals doing their thing and I was like, “I’ve never seen anything like this.” It was kind of confusing, because you didn’t know what was going on. It’s surprising how orchestrated the whole thing is yet it doesn’t seem orchestrated at all, it sounds natural.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

I saw Bruce for the first time recently at London’s Hard Rock Calling. Everyone is always like, “Bruce is the best” and I was like, “Okay, let’s see if Bruce is the best.” Man, he took a little kid out of the crowd and put him on his shoulders and he won them over after that. Nonstop energy. The band is great, there’s nothing cheesy about it. He’s just really good at what he does. It’s full blast the entire time, it’s super high energy. Even after that many years, that dude wants to do the best he can, which is what makes him the best. He did “Born in the U.S.A.” and we were in England so that was pretty funny. I think he got a kick out of it.

Arcade Fire

I haven’t seen Arcade Fire, but I’ve seen them filmed and they’re rad. The first video I found was David Bowie getting up with them and doing “Five Years,” which is one of my favorite David Bowie songs. I was like, “This band is pretty tight. They got to play with David Bowie!” They kind of remind me almost of a David Byrne-type thing; everything was really over-the-top and stuff, really big sounds. They play those songs immaculately live.

Mavis Staples

I sang with her at the Grammys. She just has pure confidence in her voice. And offstage, she speaks to everybody. She’s nice to everybody after all these years being in the entertainment business – that’s really inspiring to me. Her voice has changed, but it’s still good. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody sing like her. She’s completely unique in her phrasing. If you’re singing a gospel song, there’s a certain phrasing you expect, but she takes everything and breaks it apart and just blows your mind with it. It’s amazing. She does everything her way. 

Tom Waits

I’ve never seen him, but I have a bunch of his DVDs. One of my favorite things about Tom Waits is not only his songs, but when he does do live shows it’s the theatrics involved. It’s like Kabuki theater, really old-fashioned theatrics. Like, standing on top of a piece of plywood lying on some cinderblocks and clapping his hands, banging on a bucket. That kind of stuff is why I put Tom Waits on the list.  

Deadmau5

I’m not really into EDM music; I really like when someone plays their instrument and stuff. But I saw Deadmau5 at a festival and it was pretty tight, I have to admit. He’s got the giant mouse head on and tubes coming out of the ceiling and giant mirror glass things. I was like, “Geez, man, the amount of production put into this one show where this guy gets up here and pushes his little buttons.”

Also on Howard's list: Björk, Lee Fields & the Expressions, Father John Misty, Bustle in Your Hedgerow, Drive-By Truckers, Pujol, Die Andwoord, Dr. Dog, Miguel, the Hives, Clear Plastic Masks, Hurray for the Riff Raff, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, Fly Golden Eagle, James Wallace and the Naked Light.

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