by Liam Clements
“Over-night sensation” is tossed around quite a bit when talking about the latest buzz band, especially with the advent of YouTube and do-it-yourself blogs. Alabama Shakes hasn’t been immune to the viral treatment, but unlike many of the other buzz bands out there, they have a spot to claim in 2012’s music playground and the staying power to prove they are more than the cliché “over-night sensation.”
Hailing from Athens, Alabama, a town outside of Huntsville with a population roughly on par with Oxford’s, Alabama Shakes has blown up since their “discovery” in a Nashville record store only just a year ago. The infancy of the group began when lead singer Brittany Howard approached Zac Cockrell in a high school psych class and extended an invitation to jam. They brought in Steve Johnson, a drummer Brittany knew from the local music store and began performing at parties as a cover band, emulating Led Zeppelin and Otis Redding. By this point, they had begun developing their own sound, a mash of their unique interests. They found commonality and soon after, they laid some tracks down with guitarist Heath Fogg.
All things considered, the band began to gain some notoriety, and soon after their Nashville unearthing, they found themselves opening up for the Drive-By Truckers. (DBT was “blown away”, as the story goes.) Nowadays, having appeared on late night television and accepted the invitation to the pinnacle of all music festivals, SXSW, they’ve become the act to book for the 2012 circuit, and before they sail onward across the Atlantic and onto Europe, they’ll be stopping by North Mississippi for a visit–all before their debut drops in April.
Alabama Shakes is a possessed disposition of a soul, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll band; an endeavor that hasn’t gone untried, but blasting from this quartet, it’s fresh refreshing–refreshing in the way a mimosa is on a Saturday afternoon. What separates this band from the rest of the Otis Redding covers out there is what makes a mimosa not just a standard cup of maimed oranges. It has an edge that flushes down the thickness with a perfect measure of sophistication. The mix is the bustling persona of Brittany Howard. Howard unifies her bi-part nucleus of rock and soul with hints of a schizophrenic-like forwardness that is both curious and tribulating. Her stage presence is intoxicating and her story telling inescapable. They are the tender stories swept under the rug never to wound again, but always still delicately there. They are the narration to the human condition. Oh, and she can play a mean guitar.
The rest of the band is an amplification of Howard’s roots-rocking, soul-shaking persona. The rhythm section delivers an idiom of two flavors. When melodically snaking their path through a tune, they egg on the temperate movement of a swaying neck and relaxed eyes, meandering down a river soaking up the sun’s warm sensations. True to everything else about this band, they can rock it, laying on thick distortion and flipping that R&B motif that runs wild everywhere else into an earnest classic rock exploration, served with the mean vocals of Howard. Most importantly, when the rock personality is in charge, the cymbal crashing dexterity of Johnson’s pulse is perhaps the most impressive, heralding in a rock metal niche that thumps out rhythms that make the rock ‘n’ roll grooves a cut above this recent crop of buzz bands.
While mulling over the accolades and the prospects of seeing them, (Thursday, March 29 at Proud Larry’s), YouTube their performance “Hold On” Live from the Shoals (which has generated nearly half a million views in roughly six months). Or, Google any respectable college radio station (KEXP for instance), and peruse their video channel and you will see–and hear–what the buzz is about. Alabama Shakes amasses a great deal of zest that layers together like a cake, but the heart of it all is the soul that possesses each of the individuals that make up this ensemble. They have an intuitive bond that feeds their music, an important mark that makes the good bands great. From here, they hug the roots and reasons behind their writing, making the emotion seamless and the delivery exciting, like a well-mixed mimosa on a Saturday afternoon.
Born and raised in Cincinnati, Liam Clements one day woke up to find himself at Ole Miss, and staying true to the theme of following heartache sports teams, he’ll be enrolling in a PhD program at Mizzou for Fall 2012.