Divine Transcendent Superstar Goddess Extraordinaire: Brittany Howard Takes It To A Higher Level

Brittany Howard
Danny Clinch / courtesy Red Light Mgmt. – Brittany Howard
performs at the Hollywood Palladiumon Jan. 22, 2019, as part of Grammy week’s Citi Vault series.

There’s an axiom of sorts in the live business that once the industry pros start buzzing about an artist, it won’t be long before minds everywhere get blown by said artist. It’s happened over the last year or so with up-and-comers like Billie Eilish, Lizzo, Rosalía, Shabaka Hutchings and Yola to name but a few. And there’s another, someone who’s done it before and is doing it again, albeit at a whole other level.

“I’ve seen Brittany Howard six times this year and she’s one of the most astonishing women I’ve ever seen perform,” said veteran agent and High Road Touring founder Frank Riley, who first saw Howard perform as a solo artist last August at the Ryman Auditorium. “She’s got something to say that we all need to hear. She took the personal and made it universal. She’s a fucking genius.” ‘

“I’ve never seen anything quite like it in 45 years of going to shows and over 40 years of playing shows,” said Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood, who in 2011 saw Howard’s band Alabama Shakes perform at Pegasus Records in his hometown of Florence, Ala., well before the buzz. “I’ve always heard stories of Jon Landau first seeing Springsteen in Boston in ,’74 (‘I’ve seen the future of Rock and Roll…’ etc.) … Besides her singing and playing and songwriting, her ability to connect and transcend. To take the audience to where she wants them to go. In my opinion, she is the greatest live performer of this generation.”

Coran Capshaw, Red Light Management founder, adds, “Brittany is an amazing artist and we’ve loved watching her evolve. She made a really great record and her live show is unbelievable, so I’m certainly not surprised to hear discussions about these kinds of accolades.”

While Howard spent most of the last decade establishing herself as a tour de force with four-time Grammy winners Alabama Shakes, it was unclear how her rather radical decision to go solo would go over. Though she had dabbled outside the Shakes in 2017-18 with the scaled back Bermuda Triangle (with Becca Mancari and Jesse Lafser) and the harder rocking Thunderbitch (with members of Nashville’s Fly Golden Eagle and Clear Plastic Masks), starting all over again and putting all her energies into a solo project was something many might consider foolhardy – even herself.

“It’s scary to mess with success, because the Shakes are doing so good,” Howard said, “but I needed to shake it up – and if you’re going to do that, you better go all out and make it worth it.”

Which Howard did in spades leaving Nashville and holing up in an Airbnb in Los Angeles’ hippie mountain oasis of Topanga. There she wrote and honed song ideas outside the realm of what she had done previously.

“I wanted to do something on my own, just my music, that didn’t have to have a genre or stick to fans’ expectations,” Howard said. “I knew I wanted to do a record, but I didn’t know where to begin. I was freaking out, I didn’t know what to sing or what it would sound like. I was writing every day, putting all this stress on myself, hoping something would happen.”
Something, it turned out, very much happened. It’s not often one hears an album as bold or ambitious as Jaime, Howard’s stunning solo debut released in September on ATO Records. It’s an out-of-the-box and inspiring stew of soul, jazz, acid rock, gospel, spoken word and more evoking a number of timeless music geniuses of the American popular music canon.

Leader of the Pack:
John Shore /Courtesy Red Light Mgmt – Leader of the Pack:
Brittany Howard (center) with her 8-piece band which includes from left to right: Alex Chakour, Nate Smith, Zac Cockrell, Brad Allen Williams, Howard, Paul Horton, Shanay Johnson, Lloyd Buchanan, and Karita Law.

There’s Prince, for sure; and Sly Stone, too; D’Angelo’s tight R&B funk; Marvin Gaye’s silky grooves; Erykah Badu’s ethereal voice and swing; P-Funk’s acid rock and art-damaged funk; Otis Redding’s gospel groove; Nina Simone’s pathos and power; James Brown’s even tighter funk; with dashes of Aretha and Billie (as well as an awesome electronic jam out of left field that sounds like nothing so much as U.K. electronic group Underworld). That such a gilded amalgam exists at all is testament to this mind-blowingly gifted artist.

Jaime is also Howard’s most personal and soul-bearing recording to date. It’s named for her older sister who tragically passed at age 13 from retinoblastoma, a rare children’s eye cancer, when Brittany was just 8. Her “essence,” Howard has said, helped inspire and guide her and may just be the ineffable element to what makes this otherworldly album so inspirational and powerful.

There’s weighty autobiographical subject matter fearlessly tackled that emanates from deep within but manifests as universal messages. Songs like “Goat Head” chronicles the racism she and her mixed-race family endured; “Georgia” expressing young Sapphic desire is the love song generations of women never had; “He Loves Me” sees her returning to spirituality on her own terms (with help from Pastor Terry K. Anderson of Lilly Grove Missionary Baptist Church); while the infectious hit single “Stay High” is a loving tribute to her father K.J. Howard; “13th Century Metal” the aforementioned Underworld-like jam with music by Robert Glasper and Nate Smith, is filled with affirmations we should all espouse; while “Presence” is an ethereal groove-filled ode to love.

Part of the record’s out-of-the-box genius lies in its recording done with Shawn Everett who mixed and engineered Alabama Shakes’ envelope expanding Sound & Color for which he won two Grammys. Jaime’s recording sessions in L.A. found the duo continuing their sonic adventures and included capturing an air-conditioner’s frequency, driving for hours to get “crotales” (small antique cymbals) and having drummer extraordinaire Nate Smith play with chopsticks on a set made entirely of snare drums.

Brittany Howard
Joey Martinez/Courtesy of Red Light Mgmt)
Brittany Howard’s new solo album Jaime and tour is one of the year’s most acclaimed album/tours of the year.
Which is all well and good, but how does one take such a wonderfully art-damaged record and bring it to the stage? And not only that, but turn it into one of the best live touring ensembles currently on the road?
“The first part of putting together the live band was to establish the rhythm section since it is such a big part of the album,” Howard says. “Nate Smith played drums on the album and he is one of the best drummers on the planet. Zac Cockrell from Alabama Shakes plays bass on the album and in the live band. He and I have been playing together for years and he is such a big part of what I do. There are a lot of layers of guitars and keys on the album so to recreate that I have two amazing guitar players, Brad Allen Williams and Alex Chakour, and two keyboard players, Paul Horton and Lloyd Buchanan, (from the Shakes).  And, of course, Shanay Johnson and Karita Law are singing those harmonies with me like they did in the Shakes. It is a really incredible band. I am loving where we have taken the album and expanded on the recordings and turned these songs on their heads in some ways. I am having a lot of fun.”
The challenge for her team, however, was how to market and tour Howard as her evolving muse continued changing beyond the Shakes’ original sound. Do you start from scratch or continue where the Shakes left off?
According to Pollstar Boxoffice reports, some of the Shakes’ biggest shows included Queens, N.Y.’s Forest Hills Stadium in September 2015 where they sold 9,244 tickets and grossed more than $550,000; a show at Red Rocks a month earlier moved 9,202 tickets and grossed over $439,000; while two nights that same month at The Greek in Berkeley sold 17,000 tickets and brought in nearly $844,000.
“I think we knew that there was a certain number of people who would come from the Alabama Shakes’ audience, then on the other side of it, we had to assume that it was starting something again from the beginning,” says Matt Hickey of High Road and Howard’s RA (and the Shakes and Drive-By Truckers, too). “We had to have a level of venue that could handle the size of the band, the production and shows that could generate enough money to pay for having that band out. We tried from the beginning to find places that we knew we could be successful in markets the Shakes had done well in and markets they had to be in for the new record.”
In August, the nine-person band hit the road running. “We did two nights at the Orange Peel in Asheville just to start out,” says Hickey. “We did the Ryman, the 9:30 Club in D.C. and Afropunk Festival, just places that were comfortable and where they could get their feet wet and play.”
“It’s different [from the Shakes], but it’s very similar in the way people’s minds are going to be blown seeing it,” says Red Light Management’s Christine Stauder, who co-manages Howard and the Shakes with Kevin Morris (as well as the Truckers). “She’s always been that strong of a performer. I think we’ve always known she’s got this special thing where she’s such a quiet down-to-earth person. And then she goes on-stage and it’s so powerful.”
Two consecutive nights at L.A.’s Theatre at Ace Hotel in October and a recent Citi show in January at the Hollywood Palladium showcased the band’s virtuosity and Brittany’s inspiration. The first night at the Ace even included a cameo by actor Terry Crews who appeared in Howard’s video “Stay High,” filmed in her native Athens, Ala., by Kim Gehrig. Her enlightened choice of covers – Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher,” an interpolation of The Beatles’ “Revolution” as covered by Nina Simone and especially Prince’s obscure “Breakdown” (see sidebar) took both evenings to astonishing heights with larger messages of unity and power that never felt dogmatic. 

When We Were Kids:
AP Photo / Jack Plunkett – When We Were Kids:
Alabama Shakes’ Heath Fogg, Zac Cockrell, Brittany Howard, and Steve Johnson, left to right, pose during the SXSW Music Festival in Austin, Texas on Thursday, March 15, 2012.
“She has such a universal message,” says co-manager Kevin Morris. “Brittany is such a loving person, she’s so accepting of people and wants others to be accepted. She’s so real and genuine and loving and treats everybody fairly. That’s part of her message – acceptance and love. Like on “13th Century Metal,” you listen to that, it’s like, ‘Everyone should love each other, not judge each other, we’re all brothers and sisters,’ and that’s the number one message. She’s using her own story to say what she’s learned from everything that’s happened in her life, but she’s never super preachy. Hopefully that can impact people.”
Though Jaime has won critical plaudits across the business, including NPR’s Album of the Year honors, The New York Times’ No. 2 album of the year, and a Best New Music designation by Pitchfork, because of its September release the album isn’t eligible for a 2020 Grammy and will have to wait until 2021.
The album’s first single, “History Repeats,” however, made the August deadline and is nominated for Best Rock Performance and Best Rock Song, which is just the tip of this brilliant recording’s iceberg of goodness and really only one of many categories she could be classified under.
“I am so honored for the nominations,” Howard graciously says while acknowledging that she has “given up on trying to analyze how people categorize me. I guess I am a tough one. I will continue doing what I am doing and let people form their opinions of where I fit.”
The consensus on where Brittany fits is under transcendence. Her 2020 dates take her to larger venues including Stubbs in Austin and the Hollywood Palladium as well as major festival plays including Bonnaroo, New Orleans Jazz Fest, Primavera Sound Festival and BTS Hyde Park, among others.
Both management and agent refer tantalizingly to major play announcements coming that can’t yet be revealed – but for an artist this talented the sky, the stars and moon are the limit.
“I have always preferred the more intimate stages but look forward to bigger places, too,” Howard says looking at her dates ahead. “I think this band and its larger sound can fill those rooms well. In those types of shows, I just really try to get connected to the audience so we can take the show to a higher level.”