It’s old home week at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, Georgia, where hometown heroes the Drive-By Truckers are gearing up for the second of their annual run of charity shows. Friends, relatives, and hangers-on swarm the club’s smoke-filled backstage area, clamoring with excitement. But there’s an extra level of anticipation tonight. The blues-rock foursome the Alabama Shakes—one of this year’s most talked- about bands—are the opener. The Shakes’ powerhouse lead singer/guitarist Brittany Howard stands in the doorway of the band’s closet-size dressing room, a smile curling on her lips. “It’s kind of surreal,” she says, shaking her head. “A year ago we couldn’t get a gig. Now we’re doing this.”
The Alabama Shakes, whose scorching debut album, Boys & Girls, comes out in April, have seen their profile explode like a flash of lightning in a spring storm. Hence the bewilderment of Howard and her bandmates. The members—Howard, bassist Zac Cockrell, guitarist Heath Fogg, and drummer Steve Johnson—all hail from another Athens, in Alabama, a sleepy farm town just west of Huntsville, where Howard and Cockrell met in high school and started jamming together, honing their skills while parked on the floor. “We played for hours, everything from old blues and soul to David Bowie,” says Cockrell, sitting next to Howard before the show. Johnson, who worked in the town’s only music store, joined after Howard invited him to a party, while Fogg signed up after playing a show with Howard and Co. when they opened for Fogg’s other band.
“It was like someone flipped a switch,” says Howard, whose Tina Turner–esque wail is a huge part of the band’s appeal. “We all knew instantly that there was something special going on.” Howard worked tirelessly to try to book shows while holding down a day job as a mail carrier. “It was tough; not a lot of people wanted to hear us,” she says. “And when we would get a show on a Friday night or something, I’d have to race back to Athens to deliver the mail.”
The band got a break when a writer with the music blog Aquarium Drunkard asked Howard if he could post a track to the site. She sent him “You Ain’t Alone,” a slow-building blues shuffle that thunders to an end with Howard roaring and the band crashing around her. The response was immediate. “The number of e-mails I got was just out of hand,” Howard says. “We went from a band that didn’t have a CD to sell at shows to one getting offers left and right.”
The Shakes soon caught the ear of Drive-By Truckers front man Patterson Hood, who asked them to open some shows. “They would just blow us off the stage,” says Hood at the 40 Watt. “The power they generate together will take your breath away.”
“Real” and “authentic” get tossed around frequently in describing the band, but a better adjective might be “natural.” There’s nothing forced or retro about Boys & Girls, just an easy progression from the band’s roots. “We love R&B and soul, we love the blues, we love punk,” Cockrell says. “But we’re just doing what feels right.”
After a rousing introduction from Hood, the Shakes rip through a blinding set of garage-rock blues, punctuated with Howard’s leave-it-all-onstage howl. The audience is left sufficiently slack-jawed, and the band is showered with compliments as they make their way backstage in search of a post-show beer, still a bit stunned by all the fawning. “We’re just normal folks doing something as fun as shit,” Howard says. “All I know is I just don’t want to go back to being a mail carrier.”