Brittany Howard leaves 'Austin City Limits' asking: Is there anything she can't do?
It's Wednesday night on Willie Nelson Boulevard, and Brittany Howard is well into “Georgia,” an all-timer anthem of longing off her phenomenal solo debut album, “Jaime.” Her sequined gold cape turns the “Austin City Limits” stage lights into rainbows at her back, which makes sense, since there are storms and cool breezes coming out of her mouth.
She stands on the center of the stage at the microphone, one of the few times on this night when she plants her black sneakers in one spot. With her arms outstretched, Howard sings, “I just want Georgia to notice me,” and her fingers grasp at her palms on the clipped syllables of the word “Georgia.”
The sounds of the guitar and of the “woos” in the audience are indistinguishable, like the music itself is cheering for Howard, too.
The musical powerhouse isn’t a stranger to Austin stages, and especially not “Austin City Limits,” which she’s played before with her band Alabama Shakes. But this night, Howard is taping her solo debut on one of America’s most venerated music TV shows, booked between the two weekends of the Austin City Limits Music Festival. It’s hard to imagine anyone being better at this than Howard — "this" being singing, and playing, and dancing, and working a crowd, and exulting in the things that bind a former postal worker born in Limestone County with a room of masked strangers in a Texas concert hall.
She bursts onto the stage with a cover of Funkadelic’s “Hit It and Quit It,” a ballsy entrée ripping at the seams with funky bass lines and guitar shreds that sounded like steel wire threading through the air. “To the left,” Howard sings as her fingers throw energy that direction. “To the right,” then, magic hands following suit.
“I feel like I ain’t ever seen nobody before,” she gushes after the song, as the crowd fawns.
Any Howard performance brings to mind one question: Hey buddy, how's that voice do all that? “I know he still loves me when/ I'm smoking blunts/ Loves me when I'm drinking too much,” she croons on the soul song “He Loves Me,” her voice sweet silk. But mostly, Howard shifts her mouth to one side of her face, as if to mitigate the concussive force of the sound that emerges, because there’s no way the audience could handle the full brunt of it.
Her voice is clear and brawny, not gritty, so much as rippling with the cuts and scrapes that come from being alive. On “Baby,” she lets loose a high note with enough strength to draw onlookers at Muscle Beach.
Nowhere is that might more apparent than a slew of covers she sings. With Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” you can tell she would be doing this — cavorting from Point A to Point B, belting to the rafters and conspiring with friends playing instruments — even if she weren’t the kind of person that gets booked for TV. The audience shoots to their feet. “You’re too kind, too kind,” she thanks them.
Howard’s work with Alabama Shakes is impeccable, but seeing her let loose as a solo act is a special kind of thing. It unlocks the showstopper: lips pouting, shoulders shimmying, fingers snapping, on-beat points to the backup singers to do their thing, baby. With “Tomorrow,” an entire interior monologue plays out on her face. (Maybe it’s just an exterior monologue, then.) Sometimes she looks more like a boxer than a singer, back bent and limbs shuffling to her hype music, the bass beats thumping like blood to the temples.
“But what's this world without you in it?” she asks on “Presence,” ripping her glasses off, eyes shut so as to not see the answer to the question.
Solo work like “Jaime” has let Howard and her collaborators follow their impulses wherever they may go: soul, jazz, R&B, rock, blues, spoken word poetry. During the “Austin City Limits” taping, that last one comes with the personal manifesto “13th Century Metal,” after which Howard leaves the stage and the band sends its sounds into a formless meditation.
Howard and co. come back to the stage for the customary re-dos of some of the songs — it’s a TV show taping, remember — but she saves some of the best for last.
With “Short and Sweet,” she takes an acoustic guitar in her arms and with it sucks out all the sound in the room except for mask-blunted breaths. “I may be a fool to dream of you/ But, God, it feels so good to dream at all/ Something short and sweet,” she sings with peace and pain.
And then a rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “For Once In My Life” has her making that joyful noise we’ve heard so much about. She wraps the night up with a freewheelin’ rock & roll take on the Beatles’ “Revolution” that feels revelatory.
But I want to return to “13th Century Metal.” The album “Jaime” takes Howard on an inward journey, and we’re all passengers as she grapples with love, religion, family and race in America. The song is a monastic chant and a daily affirmation, an electronic experiment and a noise-rock barn burner. The aims she speaks into exisence on “13th Century Metal” echo throughout the songs she performs all night: to oppose those that divide us, to speak for those who cannot speak.
But one line rings out a little louder. Might be because Howard is so insistent, and so urgent, in drawing the audience’s attention to it. Maybe, though — because it’s hard to deny that fear runs amok in streets and social feeds, in stump speeches and statehouses — a night of trusting your neighbor with your emotions and your shame-free dancing makes a great case in point.
“We are brothers and sisters, each and every one.”