Rebirth Of Cool: Inside The Billy Reid Shindig
“This place used to be cool,” said Austin, the shaggy-haired high schooler who’d shouldered his way through the crowd to stand beside me at the Alabama Shakes show on Friday night.
I looked around us. The Shoals Theatre, a mid-century auditorium filled with old-school carpeting and rickety seating, looked cool enough. I asked Austin to clarify.
“I mean this city,” he explained. “Florence. The Shoals. Baby boomers used to listen to good music here, and bands like the Rolling Stones used to come to town, but now the baby boomers have grown up and no one cares about cool music anymore. We’ve become a retirement community.”
On this particular evening, though, Florence seemed like the coolest town in the South. Billy Reid, hometown hero and international clothing designer, had chosen Alabama Shakes to headline his fourth annual “Shindig,” a weekend-long party revolving around music, fashion and comfort food. Musicians like the Civil Wars’ John Paul White were milling around the Shoals Theatre lobby, and well-dressed fashionistas in white pants were crowding the concession area, hoping to grab a drink between Jonny “Corndawg” Fritz’s opening set and the Shakes’ first song. No Rolling Stones in sight, perhaps… but no baby boomers, either.
Earlier in the evening, four bands had taken over Wilson Park, with dance-rock newcomers Wild Cub leading the charge. The Pine Hill Haints, the Weeks, and Doc Dailey & Magnolia Devil opened the show, while restauranteur Chris Hastings — 2012’s “Best Chef of the South,” according to the James Beard Awards — served up free plates of Alabama gulf seafood at a house across the street. Over the Billy Reid store, foodies waited in line to buy copies of The Truck Food Cookbook, signed by author John T. Edge.
Alabama Shakes closed out the night. When the 20something coeds walked onstage around 9:45 pm, taking their places beneath a hand-painted Alabama flag and several chandeliers created from animal bones and twisted wire, Austin went nuts. From what he’d told me during the previous ten minutes, he’d just started his last year of school, and he couldn’t wait to move away after graduation. His grades weren’t very good, though, and his only ticket out of town seemed to be an elusive drama scholarship that he may or may not be qualified for. This show — this celebration of the town that he pretended to dislike — was his only escape, a chance to be proud of his roots.
Alabama Shakes didn’t know Austin — they name-checked several friends and family members during the show, none of whom were the sweaty kid hang-banging himself into oblivion to my right — but it didn’t matter. This was a hometown show, and the band played it accordingly. Singer Brittany Howard was sweaty by the second song and drenched by the third, and she made up for the rest of the band’s immobility by strutting around the stage, venturing as far away as her guitar cable would allow. “Hold On,” the closest thing these guys have to a hit, was played early in the set, and the rest of the night was dedicated to deeper cuts from their catalog, the songs running the gamut from 1950s guitar-fueled rock and roll to the vintage, soulful stuff that put Muscle Schoals on the map some 50 years ago.
“I love you ‘cause you’re my home!” Howard exclaimed at the end of the encore. The fun didn’t end there — Billy Reid hosted an after-party at his store later that evening, with live music provided by Wild Cub (and a late-night guest appearance by Reid himself), and business entrepreneur Allan Rappuhn hosted a day-long lake party at his house on Saturday — but Friday night belonged to Alabama Shakes, who hadn’t played a hometown gig in months. They sounded like they needed it. And they sounded great.