Alabama Shakes – Earthshaking!

The South has risen again! How Alabama Shakes became the best — and the biggest — new band of 2012. “They make me think of when I was with Steve Cropper, Al Jackson, Duck Dunn and Otis Redding,” says Booker T. “I haven’t seen that type of group coming together for a lot of years.”

IT’S AROUND 10.15 at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston, Massachusetts, a welcoming little club out in the university district, where America’s hottest new band, Alabama Shakes, are just warming into their headline set.

They’re about five songs in, a fiery slice of fatback funk-rock called ‘Always Alright’, with Brittany Howard whipping up a storm, scrubbing chords from her SG with a churning rhythmic momentum that puts me in mind of the legendary Sister Rosetta Tharpe, her head thrown back in ecstatic abandon as the band charges for the finish. And then, something strange occurs. The song ends, and the crowd just goes totally apeshit crackers, with a volcanic outpouring of wild applause and cheering that goes way beyond mere appreciation to some deeper, more demented zone of fervour. And it just doesn’t stop, but keeps rolling over and over, preventing the band from starting the next song, the crowd determined to establish the depth of its approval. Brittany smiles at her bandmates, bemused. “What the fuck just happened?” she asks.

What just happened was a critical mass being reached, one of those moments when it’s clear a band has grasped the Zeitgeist so firmly that it can sweep even the most disinterested of punters into a hysterical froth. It’s something I’ve only recently witnessed at Arcade Fire shows, and it took them a few albums to reach that position. At this exact point in their set, I realised that Alabama Shakes were going to sweep immediately to that level. But hey, I don’t need to tell you — you’re probably one of the thousands who hoisted their debut album into the Top 3 of the UK charts, first week out, after they’d played just three tiny gigs in this country, in a cramped room over a pub in Tufnell Park. Who saw this coming?

Not the band, that’s for sure. “We’ve all been trying to figure out what kind of status we have,” says bassist Zac Cockrell. “It kinda changes. They told us the other day, before the record came out, they were predicting a certain number on the Billboard chart. The Billboard chart? Any chart!” Bearded and sporting a baggy cap, Cockrell has the laidback, grizzled demeanour of Lowell George, and the insouciant attitude to match. “Then they tell you how few sales it takes to get on the chart,” he continues with a smile. “I thought it would take about two million records to get on the charts! But, you know, things like that are popping up. I think I was in denial for a while that things were happening fast, but things have taken off now.”

It speaks volumes for their level-headedness that when they had to bite the bullet and give up their day-jobs to pursue their musical dreams, they were scared at losing the security of a regular paycheck, from jobs as unglamorous as postal worker (Brittany), veterinary technician (Zac) and nuclear plant protection worker (drummer Steve Johnson). Even now, they’re taking success with a sardonic grain of salt. When I marvel at how their UK mid-week sales placed them at No 1 for a while, guitarist Heath Fogg curbs any enthusiasm. “That was for two or three days, then it dropped to three,” he acknowledges. “It’s all downhill from here! We peak early!”

WE’RE BACKSTAGE IN the Shakes’ dressing ­room, hanging out over a few beers and reflecting on the group’s sudden rise to international fame, from their backwoods origins in tiny Athens, Alabama.

“All kinds of people live in the county,” says Brittany. “You got, like, country boys, who wear boots and have dip in their lip and drive a truck with a shotgun in back of it to school. Then there’s also, like, normal people! “

This part of the South is classic Nascar country, the local entertainments epitomising those that dominate in the US away from the coastal cultural hegemony. When I ask what there is to do in Athens, they mention the rodeo, the fiddler’s convention, four-wheeling (off-roading) and fishing.

“Kids there seem to like to hang out in parking lots a lot,” says Steve. “They all tailgate there at Wal-Mart or a grocery store, or drive up and down roads, back and forth. It’s like a mega-sized truckstop between Nashville and Birmingham.”

“You can go inner-tubing,” enthuses Brittany. This, it turns out, is the local casual watersport, involving being towed across a lake on an inner-tube. Sounds like fun. “Basically, you get in the creek and you’re on a raft, kind of, tied behind a boat,” she explains. “It’s actually really nice. Or you can just go floating.”

“It’s not a boring place to grow up, but there’s not a lot of activity happening downtown to hang out for,” says Zac. “Most of the time was spent hangin’ out in parking lots, arguing about what you’re gonna do, and never actually doing it. then going home! “

It’s the kind of community, then, where you makes your own amusements, rather than chase prevailing metropolitan fashions in leisure, entertainment and clothes — something which works to the advantage of a band like the Shakes, who grew out of the relaxed after-school songwriting sessions of Brittany and Zac.

“I knew Zac played bass, but I didn’t really talk to him ’til we had class together,” says Brittany, with the efficient familiarity of one who’s having to tell the same story a lot of times these days. “We started talking about music, I told him I had some songs, and he checked ’em out, and came over and put some bass parts on them. After that we just started making ideas together and showing each other different kinds of music, just playing together. After a couple of years we met Steve at our local musical instrument store, the only one in town. He asked if he could come and jam with us one day, and it was really cool; and with Steve around, we could actually perform the songs.”

At Steve’s urging, the trio recorded a demo in nearby Decatur, which the drummer then played to guitarist Heath Fogg at the wedding of a mutual friend. This led to an invitation to support Heath’s band at an upcoming show, though they needed help realising their ambitious arrangements.

“We were playing songs that required, like, horn parts, soul numbers and stuff like that, so we needed help, because at the time there was just me on guitar,” says Brittany. “Heath started coming over my house and he would practise with us, and it kinda became that we were writing songs together. And as soon as we started writing together we knew we weren’t going to stop.”

First, they needed a name, and initially settled on The Shakes — a good name, certainly. So good that about 200 other bands got there first, necessitating the Alabama prefix. The copyright for ‘The Shake’ and its plural is owned by some guy that makes milkshakes, explains Brittany. “It’s like a muscle shake, for bodybuilders.” For myself, I’m just slightly disappointed that Alabama Shakes isn’t a nifty pun on The Mississippi Sheiks, the ’30s minstrel group who gave the world the blues classic ‘Sitting On Top Of The World’, an apt sentiment for the Shakes’ current position.

Initially, their own few original songs were bulked out with the cover versions that many a great band grew up playing, drawn in their case from a surprisingly broad musical spectrum. “We’d be listening to a song and say, that’d be pretty cool to cover,” says Brittany. “It could be anything, because between the four of us, we like a lot of different stuff. It could be a Black Sabbath song, or an Otis Redding or Sam & Dave song — if it was cool, we’d play it. We didn’t have, like, a niche or anything.”

“There was common ground, for sure,” adds Heath, “but everybody was bringing in different ideas.”

“Zac knows a lot about ’60s R’n’B, loads about bass players from then,” expands Brittany. “He’s taught me a lot of stuff I’d never heard of. But honestly, if I could name one kind of music that I love, fully and completely, I would say, Chuck Berry’s guitar playing. It’s like the same song over and over again, but it’s always different, tells different stories. And you can always do this…”

She throws a little dance move, despite being seated.

“That to me is just so perfect — when I go out drinking, that’s what I want to do, I just wanna do this! And ’60s R’n’B and straight up-and-down simple rock’n’roll just go great together. Heath gets the ’60s R’n’B, and he definitely gets the rock’n’roll, and then he has some other things he understands, like some country stuff that I never heard of. Like honestly, I didn’t listen to Hank Williams ’til I met Heath. There’s a lot of stuff we share between each other. And Steve — Steve is a machine! I knew when I saw him play ‘The Crunge’ that he could probably play anything. But we’re not all about the past – we’re always teaching each other about new music. It’s all connected, anyway.”

IN TONIGHT’S SHOW, the main remnant of those early days spent learning cover versions comes with the final encore, a blazing take on Led Zeppelin’s ‘How Many More Times’ which moves smoothly from Zac’s loping bass intro through the various twists and turns and dynamic shifts of the Zep arrangement, then, just as Brittany’s doing the final line “‘Cos I got you in the sights of my…”, her microphone comes unplugged and the band are forced to draw out the moment, paddling furiously against the current until she gets it plugged back in and bawls out “…guuunnn!”, and they can sail on over the waterfall into the closing riff. It’s a clear demonstration of how well they’ve come to know themselves and their material, and how much trust they can place in each other.

“I’ve never seen a band grow, exponentially, so fast,” marvels Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers, who first saw Alabama Shakes at an in-store appearance last July at a little record store in Florence, Alabama, and was smitten. “They just ripped it, it was fantastic! I fell in love with them at that moment.”

Hood invited the band to support the Truckers on a series of dates through the autumn. “They opened several shows a few weeks apart, and the difference each time was amazing,” he recalls. “One show in early November, I watched waves of people connecting with them over the course of their set. It was Springsteenian — they had people away in the back and up on the balcony, yelling for a band they had never heard in their life. Nobody in that audience had any idea who they were watching, but they had everybody in that place just yelling, and singing along with songs they’d never heard before!”

Through Patterson, the band acquired proper management and booking agents, and their career picked up speed at an alarming rate. By then, over the course of a year they had already recorded the bulk of an album’s worth of new material on their own, having trawled the internet to find a little one-man analogue studio in Nashville, called The Bomb Shelter.

“We were all working, so we’d save up some money and literally go in for like, a day or two, track maybe four or five songs, come back and save up some more money,” explains Zac. “In the process of doing it that way, our songs morphed a lot, as we continued practising.”

“We don’t improvise a lot onstage,” says Heath, “but when we’re in the studio we’ll explore and experiment, and it’s just fun when something comes together, bam! — there it is, the part of the song we didn’t even know we were looking for.”

“When you’re in a studio and you capture that moment, you can hear it happening,” agrees Brittany, “and every time you listen to that recording, it’ll make you smile, you can re-live it over and over.”

“We did that for four or five sessions.” says Zac “then for the last session we’d been signed by then, so they paid for the studio, most of which was for mixing. We’d basically tracked the whole record on our own time. I don’t know if it’s the best way to do it, but it worked pretty good for this record.” The company that signed the band was the ever-ready Rough Trade, whose Geoff Travis and Jeannette Lee had first been alerted to Alabama Shakes through reading about them in a Guardian music column. Having tracked down and fallen in love with what they could find of the band online, they flew out to watch them at one of the Truckers’ gigs in Savannah, Georgia.

“They were playing in a beautiful old Art Deco seated theatre,” recalls Geoff Travis. “As soon as they started playing and singing we knew that we were witnessing something special, and we wanted to sign them on the spot. It was amazing to see the response they got: I don’t think we had ever seen a seated audience, watching a support group that they had never heard of, give the group a standing ovation as the set ended.”

A few months later, and Rough Trade’s latest coup paid off immediately as Boys & Girls rose, with no visible means of support, into the upper reaches of the charts, confirmation of what Travis describes as their desire to “bring joy and maximum excitement to people’s lives”.

ANOTHER CONFIRMED FAN is soul legend Booker T, who played a few songs with the band at shows in Washington and Hollywood, and spent a few days last October working with them in a Nashville studio. “We just hung out, writing songs and jamming,” says Booker. “We had a great time and got lots of new material, some good songs. The band is great, really organic, and I think I met them when they were just beginning to get their roots settled down. It was a good time to get together.” “I was too in awe of him to concentrate, really!” admits Zac. “It was a really cool thing, but who knows what will be done with that stuff? It was more of a ‘get together and hang out’ kind of thing, to my eyes.”

“We just sat in a circle, picked’n’grinned!” says Heath.

“It was kinda like a think-tank, comin’ up with ideas and stuff,” says Brittany. “I think we came up with some pretty cool stuff, but what he wants to do with it is up to him.”

For Booker, the experience triggered resonances with his own career. “It makes me think of when I was with Steve Cropper, Al Jackson, Duck Dunn and Otis Redding,” he says. “The way that Heath and Steve and Zac support Brittany, it reminds me of the way we supported Otis — she can depend on them, and it’s a natural, unspoken thing that happens, and it’s just great to be around. It doesn’t happen that often, and the public is not stupid — they hear about those things, and it just spreads. I haven’t seen that type of group coming together for a lot of years.”

And like everyone who hears her, Booker was smitten with Brittany’s high-voltage delivery. “She’s honest, and she’s been through so many changes for such a young girl — once again, she reminds me of Otis in that respect. She’s so honest, she doesn’t hide anything, she’s a great kid. And I love Brittany’s guitar, I’d love to get her on my album. She’s very basic, and one thing I like about it is, she’s not afraid to not play; but when she does play, the band sounds really, really full. Their keyboard player is really good, too.”

Not the least of their assets is their songwriting, which, while eschewing more complex, literate strategies favoured by some writers has a welcoming immediacy, of a kind that makes you you’ve heard a song somewhere before, when you’re only halfway through first hearing it.

“They have melodic hooks that stick in your head,” agrees Patterson Hood, “and there’s some combination of vulnerability and strength in Brittany’s voice, and when it combines with the songs, it’s kind of Aretha-esque. It’s so moving. And they’re just babies! So far, they’ve been really level-headed, and even tried to slow this thing down; because they’ve got to be a little bit terrified at the pace of it. It’s been amazing to watch from close proximity, because I’ve never seen anything like it in my life, and I’ve been doing this for 27 years.”

© Andy GillUncut, July 2012

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