Alabama Shakes

Radio station WXRT ended its 40th year with a bang, neatly packaging three bands that released three of the best albums of the year in the station’s annual Big Holiday Concert at the Chicago Theatre this past Sunday.

“Many of you started listening to XRT in the womb, and 18 years later when you moved out of your parents’ house, you were still us,” said long-time DJ Terri Hemmert of the anniversary as she introduced headliner Band of Horses. If this show was any indication, there is good reason the timeless radio station has been a lifer for many music fans young and old: It has good taste.

Case in point: Everest. The official XRT house band of 2012 opened the night. Following a multi-venue Chicago residency this past September, the L.A. group briefly paused their tour with Neil Young to make it to the holiday show, a gift to the few hundred that made it in time to see their stripped-down set. Even with the opulence of the historic venue, Everest got personal on no-filler versions of classic hit “Let Go” and “Give a Little” from new album Ownerless.

Alabama Shakes (pictured) received the warm welcome that the southern rockabilly soul band deserved (and the one they couldn’t receive five months ago as one of the unfortunate casualties of the Lollapalooza monsoon). “The only thing that stopped them this year was an act of God,” cautioned DJ Marty Lennartz in his introduction, “but nothing will stop them tonight.” Only a year ago this quintet debuted in Chicago with shows at Hideout and SPACE. Since then, their album Boys & Girls has commanded quite a presence for the band. “I don’t give a fuck about your attention at all,” frontwoman Brittany Howard growled on “Always Alright.” Say what she wants though, audiences can’t help but be transfixed by her. Howard is our generation’s closest iteration of an Aretha, Janis, or Etta, yet she doesn’t have to sing about respect because she instantly commands it.

Band of Horses closed out the night with a pillared set of alt-country standards. The quintet, led by enigmatic frontman Ben Bridwell, got in the holiday spirit with “The First Song,” which declares “Christmastime is coming.” The performance at times felt like a Sunday drive across the American expanse (the large projected videos of colorful landscapes behind the instrumentalists helping the feeling). Songs were slow and steady with a breathless beauty and elaborate constructions.

Try as Horses might, though, they couldn’t live up to the Shakes, whose set will be remembered as the one that stole this Christmas show.

Selena Fragassi is a contributing music critic for Chicago.


Photograph: Pieter M. van Hattem