Nostalgia is the modus operandi for the Alabama Shakes and Michael Kiwanuka, two young acts that shared the bill for a sold out show Tuesday at the Fonda. Both acts delve into styles popularized decades ago and have found relative initial success developing authentic-sounding recreations of their respective genres.
The Alabama Shakes were formed in 2009 and have ridden a consistent wave of industry buzz since performing at CMJ in the fall of last year. The group’s debut album, “Boys & Girls” was released in April and has charted well both in the U.S. and internationally. Musically, the band relies heavily on the full-throated howl of lead-singer Brittany Howard to propel its rock and soul hybrid. Throughout “Boys & Girls” there are direct allusions to the yearning waltzes of Stax Records, the chugging rockers of “Sticky Fingers”-era Rolling Stones and the emotive bombast of Janis Joplin’s solo output.
For such a young band, the Fonda crowd skewed toward an older audience demographic Tuesday. From the opening notes it was apparent that Howard was going to be deciding the pace of the performance. Her voice cut through the straightforward rock arrangements, oscillating rapidly between a high-pitched croon and a raspy wail.
The set, much like the band’s album, hit upon a straightforward grove and consistently plodded forward. Single “Hold On,” was impressive at times, but ultimately blended in with the rest of the tracks. A noticeable standout was “You Ain’t Alone,” an Otis Redding homage laced with lyrical heartache that actually benefited from the band’s minimal arrangement — allowing Howard’s vocal flourishes to connect on a direct emotional level.
Later on, an affecting rendition of “Boys & Girls” was prefaced by an anecdote relaying Howard’s pre-teen friendship with a boy and how others in her community felt they had grown “too old to be friends.” The story helped draw the audience directly to the lyrics of the song, making for a rare occasion in which a unique artistic personality seemed to emerge and transcend the compositional nostalgia.
Opener Michael Kiwanuka, a British folk-soul singer of Ugandan descent, brought a breezy, jazz-based approach to his music that seemed to connect very well with the older audience. His voice — weathered and raspy — belied his youth and added authenticity to a set of songs that evoked the work of mellow singer-songwriters including James Taylor and Bill Withers. Kiwanuka’s five-piece backing band was tight and professional, adding a hefty dose of rhythm and texture to songs that are melodically compelling, but so lyrically benign that they often wane toward the edge of “background music.”
Both the Alabama Shakes and Kiwanuka show ample amounts of talent and potential, but neither have yet developed individual voices that transcend rather than simply emulate their influences.