Alabama Shakes

Down home band Alabama Shakes will rock your world!

Tuneage // Austin Considine // 03/12/12
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The Alabama Shakes
The Alabama Shakes

Alabama Shakes. The name alone suggests something Faulknerian, ambiguous. Is this the sexy “Hip Shake” of Slim Harpo or the shakes from a bad moonshine hangover? Are they talking about convulsions? Demonic possession? Maybe “shakes” is a verb. (Note, it’s not the Alabama Shakes.) “Alabama shakes!” the band declares. But why, or for whom?

Perhaps it is all of those things, or none of them. Alabama Shakes aren’t the kind of band that overthinks things. They feel them. “The problem with trying to be deep on purpose is that, if you’re trying, it’s probably not that deep,” says singer and guitarist Brittany Howard. “You just try to talk about what you know.”

She’s just awoken from a nap in the band’s tour van and is looking for road signs. Guitarist Heath Fogg guesses they’re somewhere in Louisiana or East Texas. It’s the first week of a mostly sold-out tour that will take them up the West Coast, over to New York for an appearance on Conan, then on to London and back to the States for some Southern shows, including a hotly anticipated slot at Austin’s South by Southwest Music Conference. And this is all before the release of their first LP, Boys & Girls, in early April. Come summer, the band will hit the festival circuit hard, opening the season with a play at Tennessee’s legendary Bonnaroo Festival, where they will no doubt be greeted by thousands of adoring fans, sweat-soaked and ready to see their new favorite band shut the thing down.

The word “real” gets thrown around a lot when describing Alabama Shakes. Truly, if any band could rescue the word from indie’s no-fly list, it’s them. For starters, they’re really from Alabama, a small town called Athens, population 21,897. It’s seated halfway, geographically and culturally, between Nashville and Birmingham, and its few claims to fame include a near meltdown at a nuclear power plant where drummer Steve Johnson worked until recently as a security guard. Howard started playing with bassist Zac Cockrell in high school, later bringing in Johnson, Fogg and Ben Tanner, a sometime contributor on keyboards. As much as they love Athens, they say, there isn’t much of an original music scene there. In fact, they were still playing James Brown and AC/DC covers until late last year. “You can’t gig in north Alabama without playing those cover bars,” Fogg says. “But we finally put our foot down.”

A foot well placed. At New York’s CMJ Festival in October, The New York Times described the audience as “literally screaming for joy” over the band’s original raw roots-rock tunes. Their debut single, “Hold On” was named one of NPR’s “100 Favorite Songs of 2011,” and MTV promptly placed them on its 2012 "Artists to Watch" list. That’s a lot of attention for a band with only a few demo tracks floating around. But the strength of their live act has carried them thus far, leaving swells of converts in its wake. On stage, Howard is the preternatural love child of Etta James and Otis Redding, backed by a band that calls to mind a sizzling amplifier tube tossed in a thicket of Alabama grass, about to catch fire. When pressed to speculate on her band’s sudden popularity, Howard says, “There’s just a lot of stuff out there that has no honesty or realness to it. I think people are actually withdrawing from that.”

Indeed, Howard seems to invoke something bigger, more eternal than her 23 years suggest. Incantatory howls collapse into trembling, tentative recoveries. On “You Ain’t Alone,” she sings slowly, almost sobbingly, of the fear of being annihilated by a storm, a bomb or a lover. We trust her because music is convincing when it’s this good. But where is she guiding us, exactly?

For their part, the band plans to stay in Athens, though they did recently quit their day jobs. For Howard, that means no more postal service. “I delivered mail in tornadoes,” she said. “It was terrible.” Which may help explain the storm dread. And the nuclear plant may explain the bomb reference. Perhaps these also explain the meaning of the band name. Maybe the shakes are from sheer fear. “Are you scared of me?” Howard sings. A little, we say, but then go along with her anyway. And it’s a hell of a ride.

Boys & Girls is out April 10 on ATO Records.

Alabama Shakes play SXSW this Wednesday, March 14 from 4-4:40pm at the Radio Day Stage, Austin Convention Center!

See the rest of our "can't miss" SXSW music acts now!

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Originally published in April/May 2012

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