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Alabama Shakes: From Little Willies in Tuscaloosa to Red Rocks in Colorado

Posted by Chris Rattey  June 3, 2013 10:00 PM

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rr.jpgI had been waiting 15 years to see a live show at the famous Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado. I stood on the steps of the empty venue in 1998, soaking in the amazing landscape, imagining how incredible it would be to take in a live show. Finally, a decade-and-a-half later and on my 40th birthday, a big checkmark was etched next to this bucket-list item. And like the extraordinary stones jutting from the earth encompassing this amazing concert site, the fact it was the Alabama Shakes put the journey on a different level. It was one of those moments when music meets life in a cosmic sense. It's emotional. It inspires. And at times, it's unbelievable.

I lived and worked in Tuscaloosa, Alabama for four years, from July of 2007 to the same month of 2011. I met some wonderful people, worked with one of the best sports staffs in the country, discovered what college football is all about and created a family. Roll Tide. I left Boston in 2006 with my wife and returned with two wonderful children and a boatload of southern memories. It was random how I got there, and that's what makes me confident it was the right exit on the proper highway.

shakes_green.jpgIn the fall of 2011, I took my first trip back to Tuscaloosa for the Crimson Tide/LSU battle at Bryant-Denny Stadium. I missed my friends and the atmosphere. It was a huge game, which meant an even bigger party. Tens of thousands honed in on this small city in the southwestern part of Alabama. Downtown and The Strip were jamming.

The Friday night before the game, I met a group of friends at a tiny venue called Green Bar (formerly Little Willies) in downtown Tuscaloosa. This new band out of Athens, Alabama was on the slate, and my former colleague, music writer, secret agent and good buddy Cody Banks was very high on this act called Alabama Shakes. Cool name, I thought.

shakes2.jpgFront-woman Brittany Howard and her bandmates took the stage and started the gig with the song "Hold On." It was a musical haymaker. I watched in utter disbelief as she pounded the intimate crowd with thunderous passion and pointed energy. The focus was insane. It was raw and polished at the same time, something that is only born out of the purest of talent. I remember looking at Cody Banks and mouthed a "what?" ... he simply smiled and nodded. I have seen numerous shows in Tuscaloosa during those four years, up-and-coming acts stopping through on the way to Memphis from New Orleans and vice-versa. I had witnessed nothing like this. Not even close. That was the night I fell in love with Brittany Howard and the Alabama Shakes.

Fast-forward to spring of 2012, and I was back to doing my regular thing in Boston. I was partaking in my normal drive home on a usual weekday afternoon listening to the now-defunct WFNX. Out of nowhere came those first deep bassy notes of "Hold On." The Shakes were playing on the airwaves in Boston. I nearly drove off the Pike in sheer excitement, and fumbled with my phone to text Cody Banks and some others back in 'Bama with the news. One of the DJs came on after the song - it was likely Adam 12 so I'm going to stick with that - claiming "Hold On" was going to be the song of the summer. I felt very proud of my small garden of southern roots.

shakes.jpgSo we know how the story goes from there. A critically acclaimed solo effort in "Boys & Girls," a Grammy nomination, Brittany's performance during the award show's Levon Helm tribute, the SNL stop, countless sold-out shows and a growing passionate fan base spreading across the country. The Shakes had made it.

Let's move on to 2013, our current year, and in February I was sitting around flipping through nonsense on the tube. I had been thinking of what to do for my 40th birthday celebration coming up in June. My wife's birthday is the very next day, so when the big ones come up I like to do something a bit different.

I stumbled across "Mumford & Sons - The Road to Red Rocks" on Showtime. It's a great one-hour doc for fans of M&S. I had just caught Mumfords live at the Garden, so I jammed out a bit on the couch. The crowd was so into it, and so was the band. Then I thought ... hmmm ... who is playing around my birthday at this bucket-list venue? Perhaps somebody in my wheelhouse? So I jumped online and went to the web site.

June 2. My actual birthday. Alabama Shakes.

shakes_1.jpgBUY TICKETS BUY TICKETS BUY TICKETS!!!! I hit the mouse pad fast and furiously. The Mac hung out a bit for good measure, mocking me with the rainbow wheel from Hell. I was pissed, 15 seconds of sheer rage. But I finally purchased two tickets at row 52 while my wife was upstairs prepping the kids for bed. She came downstairs right after transaction, and I let her in on our birthday plans. Her look of confusion was adorable. I love to draw that out from time to time.

There it was in front of me: when music meets life in cosmic fashion. I have a phone full of amazing footage as we climbed through the Rockies all weekend and watched Brittany and the Shakes just dominate the Red Rocks stage. She owned it, every note and every second. Every now and again I would look up from our sixth row seat in awe at the crowd throwing their hands up and just flat boogying. All 10,000 of them at another sold-out Alabama Shakes show. Here's a little clip from the madness.

shakes_vip.jpgWait ... row 6, you say? What happened to row 52? All it took was a text out to my boy Cody Banks the day before, who the Shakes actually referenced in an article about their love and support from the city of Tuscaloosa, and how Cody Banks was basically, "the man." The text exchange went something like this:


Alabama Shakes ... from Little Willies to Red Rocks ... thanks for somehow letting me ride along. Here are a few other random shots from the adventure out west. We stayed in the quaint little town of Golden, home to the Coors brewery. Perfect spot ... only 30 miles from Denver and a mere 9 from Red Rocks. The wife and I were convinced this spot was the inspiration for Radiator Springs of Lightning McQueen fame. According to the Internet, we were wrong. Duh ... Mother Road.


You really have to suck at taking photos if you come away from Colorado without a device full of frame-worthy pics ... especially with Instagram in the game these days.


If my birth certificate did not say Haverhill, Mass., then I'd be convinced I was born behind the bar at Wild Mountain Smokehouse & Brewery in Nederland, Colorado. This small, crazed town in the middle of Peak to Peak Highway is known mostly for Frozen Dead Guy Days. Seriously, go read about it. And visit. And have these smoked wings and a Hop Diggity IPA. Yes ... I bought a t-shirt. And yes ... it was tie-dyed.


And finally, the most random of all, taking in my birthday as the clock struck midnight the evening of June 1st at Golden Bowl with our temporary neighbors. I rented a small house in the middle of a Golden neighborhood, and it turned out the crew next door was from Pittsburgh and rabid Penguins fans. So after the B's delivered a Game 1 right-hook win, and we conversed between each period and postgame on their front lawn (I was never invited in - and understandably so), we all decided to hit up Rock and Bowl for some good times. Good times indeed.


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