Sometimes I worry I might be allergic to giving five star reviews, yet I scattered them freely over Alabama Shakes at their very first London show last month.
It was a raucous, thrilling rock and soul revue that launched the quartet in the sameTufnellParkpub, the Boston Arms, that witnessed the start of the White Stripes hype a decade earlier. I could see some similarities. There’s the vintage sound, free of modern frills but benefiting from a raw punky energy, and so steeped in rock ‘n’ roll history that they were confident enough to pull off an epic cover of Led Zeppelin’s How Many More Times. Plus, in 23-year-old singer and guitarist Brittany Howard they have a bona fide star in waiting, a bespectacled hollerer with the most vital female rock voice in years. Janis Joplin comparisons come all too often and easily.
One night in north London had to be extended to three, with a bigger May show in Brixton to come after a stunning debut album, Boys & Girls, arrives in a couple of weeks. The buzz has already built to deafening levels. Last weekend they played eight shows in four days to capacity crowds at the mecca for hot young bands, the SXSW festival ofAustin,Texas. Robert Plant has been in one crowd to see them cover his old band, and even Hollywood’s Russell Crowe was squashed among the hype-seekers at that first grimey London gig, where he bought somewhere in the region of a dozen T-shirts.
In the eye of this hurricane, Howard is managing to stay impressively calm. I catch her back at home in the small town ofAthens,Alabama, where she is somewhat bleary after going to bed at dawn – not partying, but night fishing. “It was lovely. I caught about 10 catfish. We’ll fry ‘em up on Saturday,” she says. She’s aware of the hype – how could she not be? But insists: “It’s not all I think about. When we’re going to play a show I just want to do the best show that I can and everything else is just extra.”
As with all overnight successes, her band had plenty of time to get good before anyone noticed. Despite her state’s rich musical heritage – everyone from Sun Records founder Sam Phillips to Wilson Pickett and jazz eccentric Sun Ra hails fromAlabama, and acts such as Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones have travelled to the studios of Muscle Shoals to capture that swampy soul sound – she says it’s hard to get a gig round her way if you’re playing original material. “It’s nothing likeNew Yorkwhere everyone in a band is playing their own songs. Down here if you’re doing your own stuff it’s kind of harder.”
So she, bassist and school friend Zac Cockrell, lead guitarist Heath Fogg and drummer Steve Johnson became a crack covers band, playing classic rock ‘n’ roll for up to four hours at a time in local bars. “Too bad we don’t do weddings,” she jokes. At the same time, they were getting together every Tuesday and Thursday in a trailer in Howard’s back yard to write their own songs. This doesn’t sound like it was too taxing.
“Sometimes I’ll write on my own and then when I present it to the group they make it better,” says Howard. “Other times we write all together, kind of like jamming almost. Someone starts something, the rest of us join in and the words come at the same time. It’s like the songs write themselves.”
Their catchiest number, Hold On, took shape live on stage at an early gig. With just its loping, head-nodding riff already written, Howard started improvising some remarkably personal lyrics over the top: “Bless my heart, bless my soul/Didn’t think I’d make it to 22 years old/There must be someone up above/Saying ‘Come on Brittany, you got to come on now/You got to hold on’.”
Pressed on her meaning today, she says: “Imagine if you had to sing a song with no words. You just have to go for it. It was all real stuff, all personal meaningful stuff off the top of my head, and I didn’t think it would ever become a song that everybody hears. Why didn’t I think I would make it to 22? I don’t usually give an answer to that. Just let the song be the song.”
Life pre-recording career, in a rural town where the biggest thrill is “innertubing” (floating down the creeks in an old tire), actually sounds like pretty ordinary drudgery. Howard was a postal worker. “I made some good money but I hated it. It’s gruelling work and a lot harder than people think. I’m happy every day I wake up and I don’t have to go deliver someone’s sweaters.” Animal lover Cockrell was a veterinary technician, Johnson worked at a nuclear power plant and Fogg ran a housepainting business with his father. They only gave up the day jobs last September.
Upon turning professional, they quickly made some useful connections. One of the biggest current bands with Alabama roots, The Drive-by Truckers, invited them on tour as a support act, while Jack White asked them to record a live session for a special seven-inch record at his Third Man studio inNashville. They benefited from the modern day equivalent of word-of-mouth buzz too, with music bloggers sharing their early material online, but Howard prefers to talk to me about vintage amplifiers than the power of social networking. “It takes up your time. Why type on a computer when you could be writing a song?”
They’re old school all right, with their song You Ain’t Alone resembling the more emotional work of Otis Redding, while Howard tells me that “straight up and down rock ‘n’ roll, like Chuck Berry, is my favourite type of music.” I ask if a couple of songs I heard her sing at theLondongig might be Little Richard obscurities, but it turns out they were originals.
And in the old-fashioned way, what excites them most about their current situation is the chance to produce a physical product, their album, for fans to hold close. “Really all we were trying to do is have a record to show for ourselves. That means a lot to us.” Listening to the album again, I think that with that Joplin-esque howl and songs that can be held up against the classic soul and rock of 40 years ago, she could stand to be significantly more ambitious than that.
Boys & Girls is released on April 9 on Rough Trade.
May 3, Electric Brixton, SW2 (0871 220 0260, electricbrixton.com)