Alabama Shakes doesn't mind standing out from crowd
Once, there was a band called The Shakes.
No, scratch that. There was more than one band called the Shakes.
One of them was too good to die — a white-hot conflagration of Muscle Shoals, Ala., Southern soul, raw garage-born rock 'n' roll, and the few remnants of the blues not completely neutered by rock radio. Plus, a singer, Brittany Howard, whose volcanic voice gets compared to Janis Joplin on a daily basis — though she drills down even deeper to the singers Janis wanted to be like: Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Bessie Smith.
They made music that didn't adhere to the mythical rulebook mandating separation of rock from soul, urban from the hinterlands, black from white. They did, however, need to separate themselves from the rest of the Shakes out there, so they put the name of their state in front.
It's hard to say where the other Shakes went, but the Alabama Shakes took to the road. Now, they're as likely to be found at festivals like Isle of Wight (UK), or on “Saturday Night Live” as at their home in Athens, Ala.. They'll be stopping in Pittsburgh for a show May 8 at Stage AE.
Alabama is a pretty big influence on the Alabama Shakes, so, the name works.
“Growing up, I listened to a lot of classic rock,” guitarist Heath Fogg says. “You could always listen to classic rock radio and find stuff to like. I don't think I started digging into the Muscle Shoals world until I realized that the Stones cut three songs there.”
Muscle Shoals, Ala., and the small cities surrounding it, are synonymous with FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, which helped shape the immortal sounds of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin. Legendary musicians are often in town, and can occasionally be found trying out material at local clubs.
The Drive-By Truckers grew up in the area — singer-songwriter Patterson Hood's father was bassist for the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section — and were the first to gain attention for their literate reinvention of Southern rock.
“Patterson Hood from the Drive-By Truckers hooked us up with his managers, and things started happening pretty quickly,” Fogg says.
Though they sound quite different, the influence of the Drive-By Truckers is hard to avoid in northern Alabama, and can be credited with revitalizing the region's entire scene — and, to an extent, the concept of Southern rock itself.
“Muscle Shoals is an hour away from Athens, depending on how fast you drive,” Fogg says. “When I heard (the Drive-By Truckers' album) ‘Southern Rock Opera,' it was kind of complex — ‘Do I like this or not?' There were songs about people like the ones I worked with on construction sites. Then, I realized how poetic it really was. I realized how good an ambassador they could be (for northern Alabama).”
If you ask anyone about the Alabama Shakes, 10 out of 10 will comment on Howard's voice. That's not the first thing Fogg noticed, though.
“I was just amazed at how talented she was at playing guitar,” he says. “She really has a raw energy on guitar. Her voice is great, but I really love her guitar sound. She's also a really good songwriter. I don't think she gets enough credit for that.”
The band is working on a follow-up to their debut, “Boys & Girls,” and Fogg hints that they're already moving in new directions.
“Some of the things we're doing are less traditional soul, less classic soul sounds, and more contemporary R&B sounds. We're still throwing in garage-rock stuff in there, trying to mix those worlds.”
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.