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Playing basketball with the Alabama Shakes

in Arts/Concerts/Culture / Entertainment/Music by

It’s almost 2 a.m. and I’m walking through a dark, silent Meusdorfer Street all the way back to my hotel. If that walk takes forever, I am completely ok with that.

What had happened to me along that Tuesday, June 30, in Leipzig was far beyond what I could have predicted. To share this weird and unforgettable day with you, I have to rewind a little and go back to Brazil. It won’t take long, I promise.

Rodrigo was positively impressed with Leipzig Hauptbanhof. Photo by Rodrigo Alves.
Rodrigo was positively impressed with Leipzig Hauptbanhof. Photo by Rodrigo Alves.

I am a 37-year-old journalist in Rio de Janeiro who decided to go on vacation in Europe to see some good bands performing live. My favorite music group nowadays is Alabama Shakes, and the original plan was to reach them in Belgium’s Rock Werchter Festival. Then they announced this show in Leipzig. A more intimate performance, a chance to visit Germany, and the unlikely opportunity to get to know Conne Island, a rich cultural venue that had received dozens of hardcore bands I grew up listening to. Perfect.

See? That was a short flashback, and we can now move back to Leipzig. And what an impressive arrival at Hauptbahnhof. Beautiful station, beautiful city. Only got slightly scared that the taxi driver couldn’t speak English and everything in my hotel was written only in German. Fine. Guten Tag, and let’s go!

After walking around the neighborhood on Monday and having a pizza for dinner, it was time to get some sleep and get ready for Tuesday. The Alabama Shakes show was scheduled for 8:30 p.m., but right after lunch I decided to walk to Conne Island, to have a look at the iconic venue and – if I’m very, very lucky – meet the band after soundcheck.

Amazing place. Quiet green atmosphere, a lot of trees, bikes, kids having fun in a nice skatepark. While some people had a drink at the bar, I just kept staring at the colorful graffiti walls outside and trying to listen to Alabama’s soundcheck. They played seven or eight songs, or parts of them, including a repeat of Miss You, one of my favorites from their new album Sound & Color.

It was already a nice afternoon, and then I had the chance to talk briefly with charismatic frontwoman Brittany Howard. I have to admit she was a little surprised that I crossed an ocean to watch them live in Germany: “Really? So we will try to make it good for you tonight”.

Conne Island. Photo by Rodrigo Alves.
Conne Island. Photo by Rodrigo Alves.

Well, they did.

Two hours before the show, the band was relaxed playing basketball at a backboard right outside Conne Island. I went in early to ensure my place in front of the stage.

I really enjoyed the opening act with Hamburg-based band Rhonda, led by Milo Milone’s impressive melodic vocals. Great appetizer for the Shakes.

When Brittany took the stage with her dark green dress, light green guitar, characteristic glasses and that big Alabama state tattoo on her right arm, the audience was hers. Future People opened the proceedings in a strong way, followed by Rise To The Sun. The small environment at Conne Island seemed perfect for the band, which had been performing at major festivals in previous weeks.

I was there, six thousand miles away from home, a few inches away from my favorite band, enjoying each moment, singing all the songs. And all of a sudden Brittany looked at me:

– Hey, what’s your name?

Oh, wait a second. I looked around.

– Me?

– Yeah, you!

She was really talking to me from the stage. And now? I don’t even know exactly how to pronounce my name in English! It always sounds strange. Is she going to understand? Should I come up with a fake easy name like Mark or Anthony?

– Rodrigo!

I had underestimated Brittany Howard.

– Rodrigo? How are you doing, Rodrigo? – she replied in perfect pronunciation.

– I’m great, and you?

– Oh, I’m great too, thanks for asking. People don’t generally ask me back, I appreciate that.

She laughed. I laughed. At the end of the next song, she said “Obrigada” – which means “Thank you,” in good clear Portuguese. The rest of the show was fantastic, including the encore with Don’t Wanna Fight, Over My Head and the breathtaking You Ain’t Alone – if you never heard this song, please go to YouTube right now, I’ll be waiting here to tell you how this night got even better. (And below is a little taste of Hang Loose I caught…)

Ready? After the show, people were still there eating their German hot dogs. I had a train to catch early next morning, but I just didn’t want to leave Conne Island. So I kept hanging around, and the band showed up.

Near the bus I had a chance to chat for half an hour with drummer Steve Johnson: the great audience, the difference between playing big festivals and a warm place like that, their show with Australian indie-sensation Courtney Barnett in the US, Brazil tour next year, and…

Alabama Shakes vocalist Brittany Howard and Rodrigo Alves. Photo by Rodrigo Alves.
Alabama Shakes vocalist Brittany Howard and Rodrigo Alves. Photo by Rodrigo Alves.

When I realized it, I was playing basketball (!?) at 1 a.m. with my favorite band at a street backboard at the incredible Conne Island. How awesome is that?

Now you probably can imagine my state of mind when I was walking back to my hotel through a dark, silent Meusdorfer Street. I wish that walk had taken forever. Thanks, Leipzig. See you next time.

By Rodrigo Alves

Journalist from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (http://www.globoesporte.com)

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