With unplanned access to a marathon-by-festival-standards Bruce Springsteen show one night, a showcase curated and headlined by locals Lucero another night, and various interview-related things scheduled all three afternoons, I saw a lot fewer "new" bands at mid-March's South By Southwest Music Festival than is my norm or, certainly, my preference.
There were a few highlights in this vein: Kenyan pop stars Sauti Sol fitting their ebullient, choreographed, six-man dance groove on a tiny club stage. Queens MC Action Bronson making his high-pitched, verbose, white-ethnic spin on Ghostface Killah connect better live than most rappers I saw. Brooklyn singer-songwriters Sharon Van Etten and Eleanor Friedberger overcoming my skepticism — Van Etten with the uncoiling power of her set-closing anthem "Serpents," Friedberger with the meticulously written rejoinders that tumbled from every song.
But the most promising new band I saw was the Alabama Shakes, a young quartet from Athens, Alabama, who played before what seemed to be a couple thousand people as the penultimate act in a high-profile National Public Radio showcase at the outdoor venue Stubb's on the opening night of the festival.
The Shakes — singer/guitarist Brittany Howard, guitarist Heath Fogg, bassist Zac Cockrell, and drummer Steve Johnson — have built a big buzz (the current issue of Southern-themed magazine Garden & Gun proclaims them "The Hottest New Band in Dixie") despite only being in existence for a year or so and having a debut album, Boys & Girls, that won't be released until April 10th.
Onstage at Stubb's, the appeal was easy to see. The band's concept — a contemporary, low-key, garage-rock take on Aretha Franklin at Muscle Shoals — is surefire and one the immensely likable Howard embodies.
A young African-American woman with a big voice and a bigger smile, the glasses-wearing Howard has an Everygirl demeanor onstage. She seems like the smart, grounded, but plain girl in school who deserved more attention than she got. But when she steps to a microphone and opens her mouth, a star emerges.
Howard's voice, while nowhere close to prime Aretha, because no one ever will be, has more growl to it, more blues and rock elements that might make Etta James and Janis Joplin truer antecedents. But her band is not Chicago or San Francisco. It's full-on white-boy soul and swamp rock descended straight from the Muscle Shoals, Alabama, tradition. And the band's rootsy sound and matter-of-fact interracial dynamic evokes Southern antecedents from Muscle Shoals and Stax to the North Mississippi Allstars. Howard owns it, and her band — augmented by a keyboard player here — also looked and felt the part at Stubb's, especially the wiry, diffident Fogg and chubby, easygoing Cockrell, whose juxtaposition called to mind the younger version of Stax ancestors Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn.
I happened to be back at the venue the next day for Lucero, who were playing a day party for their management company, Red Light. The Shakes — who also share a label, ATO Records, with the Memphis band — were on the bill later in the afternoon and were loading in while Lucero was loading out, giving me a chance to talk, briefly, to the genial Howard, long enough to confirm that the band has never been to Memphis and cast doubt on future dates with Lucero, which I'd heard reference to earlier in the day but which Howard didn't know anything about.
But if the Alabama Shakes don't have a Memphis date on the docket yet, they will be in the area this week, playing Proud Larry's in Oxford, Mississippi.
They're very much worth the trip, but onstage and on the forthcoming Boys & Girls, the hype on the Alabama Shakes probably oversells them a little and perhaps unfairly. Partly it may be the result of indie-schooled tastemakers not well-grounded in the band's source sounds. Moreso, it's probably the result of understandable excitement over the band's concept and personality obscuring their still-tentative execution.
John Lennon once said that the blues is a chair for sitting on, not the idea of a chair, and so it is with the blues-derived soul and Southern rock styles in which the Shakes traffic.
Seeing the band in Austin, alongside Lucero, was instructive. More than a decade into their career, having now fully embraced the varied, soulful, Southern rock sound showcased on their own new album, Women & Work, Lucero's Southern roots music was the thing itself, not the idea of the thing, with a comparatively virtuoso back line of drummer Roy Berry, bassist John C. Stubblefield, and keyboardist Rick Steff nailing the sound in place and with a two-man horn section of Jim Spake and Scott Thompson adding punctuation. The music had swing and crackle in all the right spots.
Lucero's road-weaned command made the Alabama Shakes sound callow by comparison. Which is maybe as it should be. You could hear it on the Shakes' lead single, "Hold On," whose languid groove is maybe half a beat slower than it should be and whose brief "Soul Man"-style instrumental flourishes heading from chorus back into verse lack excitement and detail. And, throughout, the band needs a little more funk — a better drummer, or maybe for their drummer to get a little better.
The Alabama Shakes are exciting, but they don't feel like a finished product. As early twentysomethings on album number one, that's understandable. The kind of music the band is playing requires as much skill and feel as enthusiasm and taste. They're loads of fun now. But once the latter catches up with the former? Look out.
The Alabama Shakes
Proud Larry's, Oxford
Thursday, March 29th, 9 p.m.