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Alabama Shakes stir up some soul grooves at Starlight Theatre

Brittany Howard and Alabama Shakes performed Friday at Starlight Theatre before a crowd of about 4,500.
Brittany Howard and Alabama Shakes performed Friday at Starlight Theatre before a crowd of about 4,500. The Kansas City Star

Brittany Howard is one of the more dynamic and versatile vocalists in popular music. The lead singer for Alabama Shakes can glide seamlessly from soft falsetto to a thunderous, soulful bellow, often within the same song. She also knows her way around an electric guitar.

Friday night, she and the Shakes headlined a show at Starlight Theatre. Supported by three background vocalists and two keyboard players, the quartet from Athens, Ala., delivered about 75 minutes of its mix of blues, gospel and soul.

The set list was split almost evenly between the band’s two albums, “Sound & Color,” released in April, and “Boys & Girls,” released in April 2012. Both albums showcase the Shakes’ roots in Southern music. Songs like “Rise to the Sun” and the single “Always Alright” are steeped in vintage sounds of Muscle Shoals and Memphis soul.

But the Shakes aren’t revivalists. They take their soul in different directions, shifting dynamics and adding twists and swerves that make it their own. “Gimme All Your Love,” for example, leaped and bounded from Howard singing, in her falsetto, over some light percussion and keyboard into Howard roaring over a barrage of guitars, keyboards and drums.

The sound could have been cleaner. Howard’s vocals were a bit muddy on some songs, and, from my seat in the front of the terrace section, her between-song banter was difficult to discern. The set list was heavy on slow- and mid-tempo numbers, creating a few bouts of monotony and some inattentiveness and distraction in parts of the crowd, which exceeded 4,500.

But Howard is a performer who can’t easily be ignored. Vocally, she can be nearly operatic, and she expresses herself physically, too, bobbing her head or shoulders or attacking her guitar to emphasize the pain and emotions in songs like “Miss You” and “Don’t Wanna Fight.”

Other highlights: “Shoegaze”; “Guess Who,” which veered into Philly soul territory; “Hang Loose,” a favorite from “Boys & Girls”; and “Over My Head.” That one is a deep-soul ballad about abiding the fear and exhilaration that come with deep love. And Howard sang it like she has lived it more than once.

Father John Misty: About one-third of the crowd was in place for the opener, Josh Tillman, former member of Fleet Foxes, who goes by Father John Misty. Folk is his genre, but as the Shakes do with soul, he gives folk his own heavy twists and distinct flavors.

He performed a few songs off his first album, “Fear Fun,” including “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” and “Only Son of the Ladies Man.” But songs from his latest album, the very personal “I Love You, Honeybear,” dominated the set list, including the title track, “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me” and “Bored in the USA,” his rant about … everything. He and his four-piece band commendably re-created the lush arrangements that fill “Honeybear.”

Tillman is an entertainer as much as a songwriter and musician. He tossed a few barbs at the crowd (asking them sarcastically to get out their smartphones and record the next song), cracked a couple of self-deprecating jokes and went into the crowd a couple of times, at one point grabbing a seat in the front row, singing all the while.

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com. Follow the Back to Rockville blog on Twitter @kcstarrockville.

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