Making Alabama Shakes

Article excerpt

Byline: Lauren Streib

The lightning-fast rise of a soul-slinging Southern band.

Between floor-thumping beats and crowd-pleasing choruses, Brittany Howard can't seem to get used to the 3,000 fans stacked along the stage and pressed against the railings at New York's Terminal 5 concert hall.

"This could be the best night God ever gave us," she roars, before admitting that she usually screams to the point of exhaustion during live performances. Tonight she's holding back a bit. It's early October, and there are four long months of touring ahead for Howard and the other three musicians who make up Alabama Shakes, a soul band with Southern roots and a burgeoning next-big-thing status.

To get a taste of their raw, blues-tinged power, watch the music video for their first single, "Hold On," viewed more than three million times on YouTube. It helped propel Boys and Girls, their debut album released in April, to sell over 295,000 copies according to Nielsen Soundscan. The hard-to-please website Pitchfork called it "a solid debut," and Rolling Stone doled out 3.5 stars. They opened for the Drive-By Truckers, Jack White, and Robert Plant. Adele and Bon Iver are reportedly fans. Now in the middle of a headlining tour that will take them through the U.S.--including a night opening for Neil Young in their home state of Alabama--the band will head to sold-out dates in Europe, the U.K., Australia, and South America.

It's been a remarkably fast rise to cult stardom for the Shakes. A year ago, they were a little-known act playing to outsize expectations at Bowery Ballroom (capacity: 500) in New York City as part of the CMJ Music Marathon, after which word spread that Howard was the second coming of Janis Joplin. Then came a record deal with ATO and a soundtrack spot on a Zales holiday commercial. By spring they were promoting their album with appearances on Conan and the Late Show With David Letterman.

Their backstory was instantly captivating: four musicians from the backwoods of Alabama were supplanting small-town jobs (postal worker, nuclear-power-plant guard) with biweekly practice sessions and bowling-alley gigs. Howard, now 24, befriended the band's bassist, Zac Cockrell, in high school in Athens (population: 26,000). Post-graduation, they jammed together after their day jobs. Drummer Steven Johnson met the duo while delivering a FedEx package to Cockrell at the animal shelter where he worked. …