How Alabama Shakes Turned a Shitty Career Break Into a Major Score
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Playing at the Soundland Festival in Nashville last fall should have been the high water mark of the Alabama Shakes' budding career. As a featured band on a bill of up-and-comers, the quartet would have shown the crowd what all the fuss was about. They'd been praised by numerous blogs and built quite a following in such a short period of time. But alas, it wasn't meant to be, or was it?
Their gig was subsequently cancelled over a disagreement with the booker. All seemed lost and the band was devastated since this was slated to be their big coming out party. Fortunately with the help of a friend, they secured a much bigger showcase at Jack White's Third Man Records. If that wasn't enough, impressed by what he'd seen from them, White personally invited the Athens, Ala. natives to participate in his Third Man singles series. Not too shabby for a band that wasn't on anyone's radar 18 months earlier.
"It was incredible," guitaristHeath Fogg
says via phone in Alabama on a rare day off for the band. "Jack's really cool. He's been super supportive of us, which is a dream come true. To get his praise has been a blessing."
Alabama Shakes are making their first area appearance since January's explosive gig at the Troubadour in West Hollywood. Though the band's looks hardly resemble rock stars, their energy and fury sure does. Energized by lead singer/guitarist Brittney Howard's gravelly voice, Alabama Shakes feeds off her and when the explosive notes come from their instruments, they are one of the best new live bands around. Despite not looking the part, they've have redefined what it means to be in a no frills, kick-ass rock band.
But it wasn't always like that. Howard, along with bassist Zac Cockrell tossed around the idea of forming a band in their high school psychology class. Sounded like a grand idea, so they ran with it. The next piece of the puzzle was finding a drummer. Steve Johnson, who at the time worked in the local music shop in town, fit the part, so he was enlisted to handle percussive duties. Finding a lead guitar player would prove to be more elusive.
Though he'd knew of Howard and Cockrell while in high school, Fogg wasn't sure of their musical ambitions, until he saw them live. It's safe to say that he was a believer. "I knew Zac and Brittney had been playing music for a while," he says. "But I hadn't heard it yet and just assumed they were playing in a cover band. They were doing something unique and I was really impressed by what they were up to."
Fogg invited the trio to open for the band he was playing in at the time, knowing how hard it is for a new band to get a gig in North Alabama. Seeing potential and dedication that the budding rockers had, he left his other band to join the Shakes.
Though they'd recorded demos in nearby Decatur, Ala. and Mississippi, the quartet wasn't happy with the results of these sessions. In order to get what they wanted, the group stumbled upon a studio in Nashville in early 2011, where the results were much better. Songs from this time include staples like "You Ain't Alone" and "I Found You."
While prepping to head north, the Shakes honed their live show at local clubs, nearby colleges and other assorted music venues. The early shows weaved originals along with covers by mutual agreed upon influences ranging from James Brown and Otis Redding to Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. Over this time, the band had to change their name, which was originally the Shakes to Alabama Shakes since another band in the area staked their claim to the original moniker.
The band's real breakthrough came after an in-store performance in Nashville, at least that's how the legend goes. There have been numerous purported rumors how the band's music landed in the hands of Justin Gage who runs the Aquarian Drunkard blog, but no matter how it got there, the reaction was nearly instantaneous. According to Fogg, the band's first holy shit moment came last September after they released their self-titled EP. Though it was only to serve as an appetizer to the full-length, Boys & Girls, which was released in April, he couldn't help but admire how far the band had come in such a short period of time.
"Somehow the EP ended up on the shelves at Target," he says. "It was shocking. It was only four songs that were going to be on the record so I never thought that we really released anything.
Despite the band's meteoric rise, they've managed to stay grounded, even though at times it's been hard to take a step back and realize what they've accomplished. "I think because so much happened so fast that it didn't feel like it," Fogg says. "But because the crowds have grown so much, we realize we're working on a completely different scale that we could have ever imagined."
Alabama Shakes perform with Antibalas at the Fox Theater Pomona, 301 South Garey Avenue Pomona. (877) 283-6976, www.foxpomona.com, Wed. Aug.15. 7:30 p.m. $25-$30. All ages.
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