I just had a significant experience. This woman who I have never seen before let me into the fire of her body. She is the lead singer of the Alabama Shakes and she moved me to tears.
An old high school teacher of mine had posted one of their songs on her Facebook page with the comment “if you like Etta…if you like Janis…if you like good music…”–who wouldn’t give that a listen? Before I knew it I was down the Youtube rabbit hole—one exploding performance after another. The band is from Athens, Alabama, and, according to their Facebook page, started out like a lot of bands should — in high school psychology class. The Alabama Shakes is made up of Brittnay Howard, Heath Fogg, Zac Cockrell and Steve Johnson.
The instrumental craft of the group is phenomenal. Through the grit and gravel of the tone, you can hear the precision of each chord, of each pause, of each bent note. Sometimes they sound like Big Brother and the Holding Company and sometimes they sound like something out of a Phil Spector recording session, but they always sound like they mean it.
The performance I watched that moved me to write the first few sentences of this article was a live version of their song “You Ain’t Alone.” It opens with a sound that is reminiscent of Janis Joplin at Woodstock. Perfectly chosen minor chords, a slow, guttural build up, the sweat starting to river down Brittnay’s arms. She looks like she has been doing this for years. And then, just when you can’t take it anymore, The Shakes let it rip with a refrain that is already classic: “If you’re going to cry, cry on me.”
The Shakes are not just belters, though. In their song “I Found You” they achieve a mellower sound. It’s pretty close to R&B but mixed with the straight rhythm tendencies of The Strokes. The band switches from simple, warm acoustic tones to a more driving, plugged-in feel throughout, but Brittnay’s voice maintains the soul that is the glue to each of their songs.
It is no surprise that The Shakes are about to release their first album (April 9th). You can hear the certainty in their music, you can hear the relentless soul. It’s a sound that refuses to stop — of course they were going to get a record deal, of course they were going to take this where it needed to go. You can hear it in Brittnay’s voice, it’s a voice that this generation needs.
This band is more than good. It is 2012 folks, and I’m so glad the Alabama Shakes are here to remind us what soul is suppose to sound like: a wailing heart with the vein-pulsing strength of a woman.