Photo by Scott Newton. Courtesy of KLRU TV/Austin City Limits.

If anyone wondered what the Alabama Shakes meant when they named their latest album “Sound and Color,” they had the answer as soon as the band opened last night with “Future People.” The song finds vocalist Brittany Howard spinning her voice high in her head, coaxing out eerie noises, exploring parts of her vocal range most artists wouldn’t think to enter.    

Howard, who turned 27 last night, is a force of nature. She channels spirits when she performs — Janis Joplin, an old southern preacher, thousands of unnamed voices who howl in agony over love lost and never regained. Her face contorts as the raw, unbridled emotion moves through her. Her body convulses. Just when you think she might actually explode she shifts her energy downward, driving into her hands as she viciously shreds her guitar.

The effect is exhilarating

Photo by Scott Newton. Courtesy of KLRU TV/Austin City Limits.

Howard didn’t spend a whole lot of time on banter but she was gracious and warm. “It’s my birthday. Give me some love. Give me some love,” she said early in the set. She seemed charmed, if a bit overwhelmed, when the crowd later spontaneously sang a hearty Happy Birthday.

The band’s “Austin City Limits” set was a breathless 90-minute ride. They’re travelling with a large ensemble that includes a trio of backup singers to flesh out the complicated textures on the new album. The new music mixes the soulful rock the band that made the band famous with free form experimentation that transmits as haunted R&B. Throughout all of it, Howard’s broad range both emotionally and vocally was stunning. On the gospel track “Joe” she shifted from conversational to fiery. She built “Miss You” from coy flirtation and sly wit to a furious outcry. Every song was ecstatically received by a crowd of eager fans who leapt to their feet again and again.

There was no encore. The band took the set out with a blazing rendition of “Over My Head” that had the crowd cheering for a good ten minutes, even after techs began to strike the stage. Overall the performance was a very powerful cathartic journey, one which sets up the band’s 7 p.m. ACL Fest set on the Honda stage as a can’t miss experiences.