Most local music fans probably first heard about Alabama Shakes last year when they played the Crocodile, or at Sasquatch, or Bumbershoot. Many also saw them on “Saturday Night Live” a few weeks back, when lead singer Brittany Howard positively killed it with “Hold On.” Howard is a dynamic performer, with incredible vocal power, and seeing her the first time is something to take note of.
Alabama Shakes drummer Steve Johnson remembers vividly first playing with Howard over a decade ago in the small Alabama town they grew up in. “She was pretty rambunctious,” Johnson recalls of Howard, who was only 13 at the time. “She was still trying to figure out what her niche was, and it was a pop/punk band. I don’t even think she was singing yet — just playing guitar.”
Johnson stayed in touch with Howard, and she would occasionally come into a music store where he worked. When a few years later Howard and bassist Zac Cockrell rehearsed with Johnson, the entire world seemed to have changed, and Howard was a new woman.
“I went to their jam trailer after work one day,” Johnson recalled. “I discovered this girl could really sing. In every way, she had improved a hundredfold. I was blown away.”
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Howard has that effect on most listeners, but Johnson’s experience was unique, if only for the setting. “This was a gutted trailer with no electricity, and a cord running from the trailer she lived in,” he says. “It had only a couch, coffee table, plus drums and bass amp. But the music felt like it was going to explode.”
What impressed Johnson was not just Howard’s voice — which many critics have compared to Janis Joplin’s — but he was also wowed by her retro sound. It was part rock, part punk and part soul, with none of the traditional Southern guitar rock favored by most in their region.
The band started out as the Shakes, but added Alabama when they found that name was taken. A 2011 CMJ festival helped get Alabama Shakes signed to a major label, and their debut “Boys & Girls” came out in April 2012, and has now sold more than 350,000 albums.
In the U.K. they are superstars, but maybe the same could be said in Seattle, where the Paramount represents the largest venue they are playing on this current tour. “Seattle’s been a great town for us,” he says.
The band has tried to “pump the brakes a bit” to make sure things don’t get too crazy, he says, but much like the onstage energy of Howard, it’s been hard to contain. “Brittany has this amazing stage presence,” Johnson says, “and she gets to a place where she’s is losing it, and people just feed off that. There is no way of bottling that up, and saving it. People see that, and they want to spread it around.”
Charles R. Cross: firstname.lastname@example.org or www.charlesrcross.com