Only a year ago, the Alabama Shakes were virtually unknown outside a couple of northern counties in their home state. Now they have a deal with Dave Matthews's ATO label, more than 16,000 fans on Facebook and a recent profile-raising tour opening for Drive By Truckers. Perhaps most importantly, their music was featured on a national television ad campaign by Zales jewelers that gave literally millions of people a small taste of their Muscle Shoals soul with a garage rock growl during the recent holiday season.
The Shakes also got a huge break with a glowing review from widely read popular music Web site Aquarium Drunkard. Not bad for four twentysomethings from Athens, Alabama, population 20,000, who released their debut, self-produced, four-song EP only a year ago. Upcoming shows in Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco are already sold out weeks in advance, and the band appears to be gaining momentum and visibility as fast as anyone in the business. The buzz around the Shakes is as big as that of any band in the game at the moment.
The heart of the Alabama Shakes is singer/guitarist Brittany Howard, whose soul shout is drenched in ache and filled with Janice Joplin-esque power and tension. What her huge, direct voice lacks in smoothness, she makes up for with a slap-your-face realism; when she sings, there's not a doubt that she's being as real as a sink full of dirty dishes and a pile of overdue bills, Aretha's soul meeting Joplin's highwire push to the emotional edge.
The Alabama Shakes
7 p.m. Friday, January 20, at the Continental Club, 3700 Main, 713-529-9899 or www.continentalclub.com.
The band's relatively rapid success is a bit of a double-edged sword, according to guitarist Heath Fogg.
"We've barely been together three years, and it's only been a year since we put out that little four-song EP, so on one hand it's almost embarrassing to blow up like this. Less than a year ago we were scrounging for any gig we could get just like most bands, and today we are booked so far out it is almost staggering," he notes. "I can certainly tell you none of us ever imagined this kind of success and acceptance this quickly."
Fogg believes much of the success comes from the type of music the band excels at, a combination of rock and Stax/Motown/Muscle Shoals soul.
"We're really just a rock and roll band that happens to lean towards that Otis Redding thing which comes natural to a lot of musicians in this part of the country, and it seems a lot of people really get into that sound," he explains. "We get pigeonholed as a retro soul band or a neo-soul band by some, but actually 'You Ain't Alone,' the song that was used on the Zales commercial, is about as close as we get to a true soul sound. We're really just a good-time rock and roll band."
The ad was certainly a shot in the arm for a young, struggling band.
"We haven't figured out how that happened," Fogg chuckles, "but I just know nothing happens by accident. We did hear a friend of our manager's might've had something to do with that. However it happened, it was a godsend because we were all broke and it put some real money in the tank at just the right time. Now with the ATO deal and this amazing burst of bookings, we've all been able to quit our day jobs."
Not everyone has been as taken with the Shakes as Aquarium Drunkard, one of the first media outlets to praise the band, calling them "a slice of the real; an unhinged, and as of yet unsigned, blues-based soul outfit fronted by a woman armed with a whole lotta voice and a Gibson SG." Longtime industry critic Bob Lefsetz pooh-poohed the building buzz around the band in his widely read blog. Lefsetz likes the band and has high hopes for further development while noting that the songs, at least on the EP, are "far from riveting."
"I try not to be affected much by what critics say," says Fogg, noting the whole phenomenon of critics taking notice is something the young band is still learning to handle. "We're a fun rock and roll band and we're certainly aware of our limitations. The trick will be to grow and get better."
Fogg also believes the Shakes' first full-length album, recently completed in Nashville, is going to change some impressions about the band.
"There's a wider range of music that hopefully paints an expanded picture of who we are," he says. "We're actually all suckers for a pretty melody, and there are several nice ballads and slow burners that may surprise people who judge us by the EP or having seen a live show."
Long-time Nashville veteran and Alabama native Jon Byrd said of the Shakes: "When they're a jam band, I hate 'em. When they're a blues band, I don't care. But when they find the completely unparalleled and righteous blend of dirty blues and hurtin' country that is the soul of Alabama music, I'm droolin' and cryin' and shoutin'. Talk about the antithesis of the Civil Wars."
Thoughtful and humble, Fogg shrugs off such comments without rancor.
"Brittany is just a great talent and entertainer, and people love her. She's the big draw. I think the live show is pretty dynamic and emotional. People everywhere seem to respond favorably. Hopefully they'll also get our album when it comes out."
Foggs says the EP was a hurried, cheap thing "because people kept asking us if we had a CD and some of them would actually seem angry when we didn't." But with backing from ATO, the band was able to search out a studio and engineer that seemed to fit the type of recording they envisioned.
"We worked with a few engineers who seemed to be too tight on the knobs," he laughs. "One guy actually told us what we were doing was either accidentally genius or completely amateur."
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So the band headed to Nashville to work with Croatian engineer Andrija Tokic at The Bomb Shelter. "I actually saw an ad online when I was looking at The 5 Spot's Web site, and when I checked the studio out and saw the projects Andrija had done, we decided to get in contact. And it was just what we were looking for — lots of old gear, analog, two-track, perfect for us."
Bright lights and big cities loom large in the Shakes' immediate future — "it's a huge blessing to finally have a full calendar after struggling to get even local bar gigs" — but Fogg has no plans to move from tiny Athens.
"It's not a one-stoplight town, but it's a little town where everyone who plays music knows each other, and we're comfortable here. We can just be who we are," he observes. "We want to have success doing what we like to do, but we're all down to earth, small-town kind of people, and I think everyone has stayed pretty grounded so far.
"Tuscaloosa was the first place to really adopt us and love us, so a move there might seem to make sense," says Foggs. "But this is my home. I've got no plans to leave."