The Alabama Shakes aren’t the only young band working the ‘60s soul vein these days, but they bring more fire, grit and credibility to the game than most.
The two-year-old quartet hails not from England, not from some alt-rock proving ground like Athens, Ga., but rather from the antebellum rural town of Athens,Â Alabama. It’s within a couple hours’ drive of the music traditions of Memphis, Nashville, Atlanta and Muscle Shoals, Ala., and the band’s debut EP sounds like they’ve been soaking up whatever’s in the water down there.
Listen to their debut EP.
Recently signed to ATO Records in North America and Rough Trade in the U.K., the Alabama Shakes are now mixing their first full-length album in Nashville and will stop by Radio Radio tonight for their first-ever Indiana gig. The current tour includes some dates opening for home-state heroes the Drive By Truckers, most notably a New Year’s Eve show in Washington, D.C., with DBT and Stax Records legend Booker T. Jones. They’ll continue traveling the States until February, when they play a three-night stand in London that is already starting to sell out.
Joined by keyboardist Ben Tanner for portions of the current road trip, the group’s core lineup is Steve Johnson on drums and vocals, Zac Cockrell on bass, Heath Fogg on guitar and Brittany Howard on guitar and lead vocals. They’ve known each other since their teens, and together they produce a warm and classic-sounding blend of rock, blues, gospel and country music.
“All we are really doing is making the music the way that we would like to hear it,” they told NUVO in a group interview.Â “Seems like somewhere along the way, the idea of making a goodÂ soundingÂ song got lost in the midst of iPads and Twitter accounts.”
Fronting the band is Howard, a fearless belter who testifies with the power of an Aretha or an Otis, though with her own idiosyncratic delivery. Where does a voice like that come from?
“It feels very natural to sing this way,” she said. “It’s very freeing to shout as loud as I can. I actually have a hard time singing softly. It wasn't until a couple of years ago that I realized that that was OK.”
Another signature voice in the mix is Fogg’s tasteful guitar. He can deliver a blazing solo when called upon, but he’s more inclined toward a simple melody or an economical lick that advances the song. He performs in the spirit of the players he admires: Keith Richards, Stax session man Steve Cropper, and AC/DC’s Young brothers, to name a few.
“I love really rhythmic guitar players,” Fogg said. “The thing I love most about soul music and classic R&B guitarists is how raw the songs are underneath the horns and strings.”
The four songs of the eponymous Alabama Shakes EP — free to stream or $4 to purchase from their Bandcamp page —Â showcase a broad range of flavors without straying too far from a basic identity. “On Your Way” is a mini-epic of progressive Southern rock like you might expect from My Morning Jacket. “You Ain’t Alone” is a show-stopping 6/8 power ballad akin to Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.”
Though the future looks bright, the group’s origins, way back in 2009, were anything but auspicious.
“We had gotten together more or less out of boredom, at one point, but nothing ever came of it until months went by and Heath’s band at the time needed an opening act,” they recalled. “We threw together about 40 minutes of material in three practices and went for it.Â To our surprise, we had really good feedback and knew the chemistry was there, so we continued to play together.”
For that initial gig, they hastily named themselves the Shakes. But as time went on, they learned of a current Chicago band and other previous outfits that have used the name, so recently they embraced the need for a change.
“At the time, we didn’t think we would do anything past that one show, so we just made a generic name,” they said. “We knew we would have to change it eventually.”