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Do Believe the Hype

December 12th, 2011

Alabama Shakes – Mercury Lounge – December 9, 2011


Bassist Zac Cockrell, guitarist Heath Fogg and singer-guitarist Brittany Howard knew one another in high school. Two of them later met drummer Steve Johnson at the lone music store in tiny Athens, Ala., and the four began making a stew of music together. Slowly word began to spread. Aquarium Drunkard fired the first salvo, calling Alabama Shakes (then just the Shakes) “a slice of the real” and posting the slow-burning, attention-grabbing “You Ain’t Alone” back in July.

For a while a self-titled EP, featuring that song and three others, was all most anyone heard of the band. But the group’s talent was immediately clear. And anticipation grew leading up to the Alabama Shakes’ Bowery Ballroom appearance—now with a keys player—at CMJ in October. Heady, flattering comparisons, quickly followed, like Janis Joplin (for Howard’s voice and demeanor) and Muscle Shoals (for the band’s gritty blues-and-soul-inflected rock sound). The quick rise then continued as the band signed with ATO Records and had “You Ain’t Alone” appear in a Zales commercial. So the hype was palpable ahead of Friday’s sold-out show at Mercury Lounge.

All too often bands with a retro sound come off like they’re trying to approximate something, but the Alabama Shakes’ music is earnest, raw and real. The crowd was responsive from the start, prompting Howard to say, “Y’all sound so beautiful.” And while the songs people knew, like “Hold On” and “I Found You,” elicited the loudest response, on the strength of Howard’s powerful, lived-in voice, even the ones they didn’t, like “Be Mine,” “Boys and Girls” and “Going to the Party,” were greeted with hooting and hollering. Not even two months earlier, the group’s members barely made eye contact onstage and even less often peered into the audience. But on Friday night, the new band with the old soul was in control, playing the kind of music that grabs you by the collar and, on a rambling cover of “How Many More Times,” smacks you in the face. —R. Zizmor

Photos courtesy of Ahron R. Foster | ahronfoster.com