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Once a cover act, Alabama Shakes rock and soul band draws notice

Peter Mongillo

In October, the Alabama Shakes rolled into New York for the CMJ music festival, which, like South by Southwest, gives bands a chance to get seen by media, industry people and music fans. It was their first New York show, and they were scheduled to play only one set at the Bowery Ballroom, a high-profile venue on Manhattan's Lower East Side. The group, a four-piece rock and soul outfit fronted by Brittany Howard, who sings and plays guitar, had been touring as the openers for the Drive-By Truckers, and people were starting to notice, including NPR's Ann Powers, who gave the band a nod after seeing them play in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

The band showed their best stuff during the set. New York Times critic John Pareles gushed:

"Imagine a CMJ buzz band not built around some cool-headed concept involving noise or irony or ambiguities or primitivism. Imagine a band not trying to make a fashion or anti-fashion statement. ... And imagine a band whose New York City debut left a CMJ Music Marathon audience literally screaming for joy."

Others in the crowd were equally over-the-top in their reviews on Twitter. One writer said the band "transported Bowery Ballroom 2 the 1960s where motown & rock n roll ruled the earth." Since then, they've been playing to sold-out rooms across the country. Saturday, they'll be back in Austin — they played Stubb's a few days after the CMJ show — at the Continental Club. If you can't get in, they're already an official SXSW band, sure to play multiple shows in March.

All the attention seems improbable given the band's history. The group — which includes Howard, guitarist Heath Fogg, bassist Zac Cockrell and drummer Steve Johnson — had been playing music together for years, but up until two years ago, they were eking out an existence as a cover band, with day jobs to pay the rent.

"A bunch of Led Zeppelin, some Creedence, some Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath, AC/DC," Johnson said when asked about their playlist. "If they didn't recognize what it was you were playing, they didn't have much use for you."

They were a group of people that lived in the same place (Athens, Ala., outside Huntsville) and knew each other as musicians. Johnson worked in a music store where Howard, who has been playing with bands since her early teens, would occasionally pop in to play the guitars. Howard and Cockrell had been working on music together; one day they invited Johnson to play. They recorded some demos. Johnson played them for Fogg (at a wedding, of all places) and he signed up. A band was born.

At that point they were still known as the Shakes (they added Alabama during the summer to differentiate themselves from other bands called the Shakes). Athens didn't have much of a local music scene, so they traveled to nearby cities that did, including Birmingham and Montgomery, Ala., Oxford, Miss., and Nashville, Tenn. And they played. A lot.

"We would play like four hours worth of cover music, four 45-minute sets with a 15-minute break in between each set. We did that forever," Johnson said. "We played so many free shows, it was ridiculous. Or shows where we would break even. It would pay for gas there and gas back, or some food. We'd make 50 bucks or 100 bucks, and that for us was great."

Covers and $50 paydays wore thin, especially since the band had accumulated a good deal of original material they were itching to play. They began opening for bands and playing small venues and record stores, including one in Florence, Ala., hometown of Patterson Hood from the Drive-By Truckers. Hood saw them and was so impressed he invited them to open for the band for a few shows.

"The songs, the playing, the charisma. Honestly, everything about them," Hood said via e-mail about what drew him to the band. "They were set up on the floor, playing without monitors with a barely adequate vocal PA and blew the doors off."

The tour continued through the fall. By the time the band returned to New York for the first time since their October CMJ show, they sold out several shows. The same held in Chicago and Los Angeles.

"The improvement I saw from the first show with us in September to the shows we played in November was incredible," Hood said. "On New Year's Eve, I saw them with Booker T. Jones sitting in with them and it was amazing. The fact that Booker would want to sit in with them says volumes."

Around the same time, the Alabama Shakes posted a four-song EP to Bandcamp. To avoid sounding to polished, they recorded it live. A background buzz fights through at times giving the songs a warm, DIY feel. Howard's voice matches the production with a raspy soul style that sounds as if she's about to explode in a passionate fit.

"We want people to feel the song," Johnson said. "When you go to a show and you can feel the energy on stage, you feel the energy of the people around you, that's what we wanted to produce on tape."

A full length is due sometime later this spring on ATO Records. After the Austin show this Saturday, the band continues on to the West Coast and then to England before heading back here for SXSW, where, if the trend continues, they promise to bring in a crowd. Johnson isn't thinking too much about that, though.

"We haven't had practice in forever," Johnson said. "We just kind of come in to the venue, do sound check and wait until somebody says go and then get up there, nerves and all. I still get nervous pretty much before every show, until the first song is over, and then I'm ready to go."

pmongillo@statesman.com

The Alabama Shakes