MUSIC

Alabama Shake just ‘keeping it real’

The Idaho StatesmanMarch 8, 2013 

Alabama Shakes singer-guitarist Brittany Howard is hiding under the sheets and loving it.

She and the Shakes are savoring a break after a performance five days earlier on “Saturday Night Live.” On this weekday afternoon, the 24-year-old interrupts an epic TV-watching marathon to answer her phone.

“I’m in my bed watching Netflix,” she confesses with a laugh. “Awesome!

“I’m so happy to be home. I can’t even explain. I keep waking up, and I’m like, ‘Where am I?’ I have dreams about airports.”

It’s been a jet lag sort of year for the Shakes.

In February 2012, the Athens, Ala., rock ’n’ soul band made its first national TV appearance on “Conan.” The Shakes’ debut album, “Boys & Girls,” hit the streets two months later and rose to No. 8 on the Billboard Top 200 and No. 3 in the United Kingdom. The group played on the “Late Show with David Letterman.” Howard rocked on stage at the Grammys, where the Shakes were nominated for three awards. The band’s smoldering loose groove, “Hold On,” was crowned the top song of 2012 by Rolling Stone magazine.

Still, it wasn’t until “SNL,” Howard says, that the roller coaster felt like it was turbocharged.

“It was different,” she says. ‘SNL’ is a pretty big deal.”

How big? “Boys & Girls” bounced back up the Billboard Top 200 to a new high of No. 6 less than two weeks later.

It wasn’t that many years ago that Howard and bassist Zac Cockrell met and started playing music at East Limestone High in Athens. Eventually, they picked up drummer Steve Johnson and guitarist Heath Fogg, concocted a set of original songs and covers by AC/DC, Led Zeppelin and Otis Redding, and the Alabama Shakes were born.

Howard is a stunning, self-taught vocalist — one of those rare talents able to summon raw, gorgeous emotion. This ability to release herself completely has drawn comparisons to Janis Joplin.

“To me, that’s the whole point of music,” Howard says. “That’s a place to express yourself, to be free. If you’re not doing that, I’m like, ‘What are you doing?’”

After she killed it on stage at “SNL” — all knee-length dress, Gibson guitar and confident, cathartic howl — footage was posted at RollingStone.com. An online commenter proclaimed: “Finally a Brittany that can sing live.”

Howard roars with laughter at the quip: “That’s a pretty good one!” But she keeps in mind that this band isn’t called Brittany and the Shakes. Despite her forceful stage presence, the group is a democracy, she says.

To perceptive ears, the evidence is in the band’s sound. Seemingly untainted by modern influences, the Shakes are an organic synergy of young musicians whose grasp of dynamics, space and groove feels inherently natural.

Howard uses terms such as “pop bubblegum” and “cookie-cutter” to describe precisely what the Shakes are not.

“We’re like the total opposite of all that,” she says. “And I think that’s what maybe people like about us. Maybe they haven’t seen anything like us for a while. And we’re just keeping it real. I mean, I’ve been to the Grammys. I’ve been on ‘SNL.’ I’m the total same person.”

That person is eager to start work on a second album, she says.

“Ever since we finished recording ‘Boys & Girls,’ I was already thinking like, OK, I want to write the next album. But I didn’t really know what it was like actually being in a band. So then you have to tour. …

“I just want to get back to writing,” Howard says. “But at the same time, I enjoy that people actually come to our shows and see us. Because I might not have mentioned, there’s no music scene in Athens. We used to play for like five people, whoever. We’d get excited to drive to Montgomery and play in a bar. I don’t forget those times.”

(Remember, the Shakes are from the Athens in Alabama, not Georgia: “We get that all the time,” Howard says. “I’m like, ‘You’re not talkin’ ’bout my Athens.’”)

With time off from touring coming in April and May, the Shakes will be able to resume songwriting. Either that, or Howard will snuggle in for another bedroom hibernation with “House of Cards” on Netflix.

She laughs a denial.

“I’m about to be done with it!” she insists. “I’ve been watching it for two days straight.”

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