Alabama Shakes shake up the blues

The story of Alabama Shakes is a testament to the American dream – cliché at times and easy to roll your eyes at but somehow incredibly profound. It harkens back to an era in American musical history when unsuspecting small town talent could be found at a local dive bar playing for rent money and the love of performing. Before the era of Soundcloud rappers and YouTube sensations, kids weren’t afraid to put in the work on a grimy, beer-encrusted stage with visions of hitting it big dancing like sugar-plums in their head.

Brittany Howard, the lead singer and founder of Alabama Shakes, was just this kind of kid. She met fellow bandmates Zac Cockrell and Heath Foggs in the mid-2000s at East Limestone High School at a garage jam session. They recognized each other’s respective talents and, with a little organization, formed a group under the name The Shakes.

After playing a mix of covers and original material at house parties and small restaurants, and working jobs as a fry cook or postal worker to make ends meet, the band finally saw their big break. Justin Gage, a Los Angeles music blogger and SiriusXM host, happened upon a recording of one of their more popular songs “You Ain't Alone.” He posted it on his website and the next morning they awoke to a flood of offers from record labels and management companies.

That was in 2011. Since then, they have rebranded from The Shakes to Alabama Shakes, released two full-length albums, won four Grammys and brought their uniquely soulful style of bluesy rock to mainstream audiences. Howard’s vocals carry each and every track. Her powerful, full-bodied voice, a tonality usually associated with African-American gospel music, leaves you in rapture as she acrobatically swings from rasping highs to bassy lows. The way her vocals are stylized in post-production, giving it an almost tinny effect, makes it feel like something pulled straight out of the 60s during the heyday of blues rock. Howard cites artists such as Led Zeppelin, Otis Redding and Bon Scott of AC/DC as having a huge impact on her style today.

Their first album “Boys & Girls” features many of the tracks that propelled the band into the limelight. Songs like “Hold On” are quintessential Alabama Shakes, characterized by a slow, marching tempo set by a prominent kick and a bluesy hollowbody guitar melody layered on top with Howard’s brilliant voice becoming the center of attention as soon as she opens her mouth.

Their most recent album “Sound & Color” takes a turn toward a more alternative style. The guitar is more distorted and echoey with more variation in pacing. However, the essence of the Alabama Shakes’ style remains present and pervasive. This album was even nominated for Album of the Year in 2016 but ended up only taking home Best Alternative Music Album that year.

It’s become increasingly rare to see someone perform with the level of passion and soul displayed by Ms. Howard. Until I heard their music, I couldn’t remember the last time I got goosebumps from hearing someone sing with such emotion. I highly recommend you give them a listen, the louder the better.


Mitchell Clark is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at mitchell.clark@uconn.edu.