Brittany Howard is exhausted. Wearing a tight, brightly patterned dress and burgundy Doc Martens, and sporting a new bouffant faux-mohawk along with a large tattoo of the state of Alabama on her right arm, the Alabama Shakes lead singer lets her head hang while she and her bandmates trudge up an alley, where a photographer is waiting. They’re on the last stop of a grueling couple of months of travel, promoting and playing shows featuring songs from their new album, Sound & Color.
Today, in Knoxville, it’s a beautiful afternoon, and later the band will play a long-sold-out gig at the Tennessee Theatre. “Just gotta stay positive, know it’s part of the business,” Howard says, smiling faintly as the photographer finishes up. As they retrace their steps back to the theater, a middle-aged man approaches to ask for an autograph. “You going to the show tonight?” Howard asks. Absolutely, the fan says. Any sign of Howard’s fatigue will soon vanish when she steps onstage, her powerful presence a large part of what has made the Shakes one of the most compelling live acts in the country. “Good,” she says to the fan, smiling broadly now. “I hope you know what you’re in for.”
It’s been three years since the Shakes debuted with Boys & Girls, an earthshaking collection of fuzzy blues, vintage soul, and modern garage rock. Fueled by Howard’s epic wail on songs such as the hit single “Hold On,” the Shakes vaulted from being an Alabama bar band to headlining shows and festivals around the world. It would have been easier—and still respectable—to churn out another album with twelve variations of “Hold On.” Instead, they took a risk, pushing themselves to create dreamy, funky soundscapes, stretches of which recall Prince or Sly Stone, mixed in with streaks of psychedelia and barn burners like “The Greatest.” Sound & Color might not be the conventional follow-up album fans were anticipating, but it positions the band as musicians without fear who push their collective creativity, using blues and soul as a springboard for a dive into murky, exploratory waters.
In the way Jack White brought a rootsier kind of rock to the masses more than a decade ago, the Shakes are at the forefront of a new blues-and-soul-tinged renaissance. The influence shows up in bands as diverse as Houndmouth, with its glistening country soul, and up-and-coming performers such as Fantastic Negrito and the velvet-voiced Leon Bridges, who has the music world buzzing in anticipation of his debut album this summer.
For the Shakes, who hail from Athens, Alabama, it’s easy to draw a link to Muscle Shoals. But don’t call them revivalists, a term they’re not exactly fond of. “It seems like a big crown to wear, and it doesn’t really define us,” says guitarist Heath Fogg, sitting next to Howard in a dressing room backstage. “We have other influences. R&B is a heavy influence, but from different eras, not just Muscle Shoals.”
“I started listening to seventies-era music from the Temptations, who were experimenting with guitars and synths,” Howard adds. “[They were] sounds that weren’t conventional. We have our roots in this type of music. It’s just fun to get weird with it.”
Both Howard and Fogg say that even while they were recording their first album, they knew they wanted to make a leap with the next. Boys & Girls was the exclamation point on their time pounding away in Alabama dives, but the new album was a blank slate, an opportunity to evolve into something other than a bar band. “I think we’ve always been clear with each other about the kind of music we were going to make,” Fogg says. “It’s fun to make music that’s harder.” Though the band exudes musical confidence, there’s still a sense that the Shakes may be a little uneasy with their success. Gone are the day jobs (Howard worked as a mail carrier in Athens), replaced by heavy expectations. But if Sound & Color is any indication, they seem to have so far avoided the pitfalls of rock stardom. “At the end of the day, we have each other, and the most important thing is how we got here in the first place,” Howard says. “I’m so proud of this record. I want people to be surprised. I don’t care if we make money or hits.”
Later, the band arrives onstage to a roar akin to that of the home crowd at the Iron Bowl. Howard has deftly developed into a dazzling performer, howling, cajoling, and, at times, squealing her vocals in a frenzied, otherworldly falsetto. The band, which now includes three backup singers and two keyboardists—to help flesh out Sound & Color’s galactic soul—plays behind her almost expressionlessly while she’s stomping, waltzing, and sliding across the stage. Fans already know some of the new songs by heart, and when the haunting guitar lick of “Don’t Wanna Fight” kicks in, hoots and hollers ring out that climax with a giant sing-along of the pleading chorus.
Ninety minutes later, after very little stage banter and no “Hold On,” Howard walks offstage and straight into the alleyway to smoke a cigarette. She knows she should quit. “It’s just a bad decision I made when I was fifteen.” She’s standing just inside the door frame so she can duck behind the wall if someone approaches. The air is cool and still, and talk turns to the 4:30 a.m. call time for the bus to head back to Athens. Howard has two cats, Ozzy and David, and she says the first thing she’ll do when she arrives home is clean the litter box. “Then, I’ll be able to play my favorite venue,” she says wearily. “My bed.”
Three days and some quality sleep later, Howard sounds rejuvenated. She thought the show in Knoxville was “pretty good,” adding that she felt the band improved every night on the tour. “It’s gotten tighter with the songs,” she says. “The more you know your part, the more you can sit back and enjoy yourself.” She’s again on her way back to Athens, this time after a quick visit to Nashville to check in on the renovation of a 1920s bungalow she bought. She has a home in Athens but feels drawn to the pulse of Music City, a far cry from the pastoral fields where she grew up. Yet, she’s not sure if she’ll live in the new place once the work is done. “I might stay there for a bit then rent it out Airbnb style,” she says. Besides, she probably won’t be home much anyway. The Shakes will spend much of the summer and fall on the road, bringing their nonrevivalist blues-soul mélange across the globe. They might even bust out “Hold On.” Or not.
“Our music [now] is more complicated, thank God,” Howard says. “I’m really proud to perform for people. People are gonna get a great show.”
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