Alabama Shakes’s Soul-Stirring, Shape-Shifting New Sound

Alabama Shakes’s Soul-Stirring, Shape-Shifting New Sound

The New York Times Magazine

Joe Rhodes

With its highly anticipated second album, this band of small-town misfits finally has a ticket out — not that they would ever leave.

In the upstairs dressing room at the Georgia Theater in Athens, Ga., in January, Alabama Shakes was getting restless. The band was about to perform songs from its second album, “Sound & Color,” for the first time, and the room was full of distractions. Friends and relatives had driven over from Alabama: cousins and uncles, wives and girlfriends, crying babies and unrestrained toddlers. Sippy cups and spilled Cheerios were scattered everywhere.

Off to one side, Brittany Howard, the 26-year-old lead singer, stared into the middle distance, listening to the new tracks on her headphones, concentrating on the sections that had given her trouble in rehearsal. She got the last touch-ups on her makeup and hair, a sort of Mohawk-bouffant cropped close on the sides, her bouncy curls left free to run wild on the top, and slipped into her show boots: ankle-high burgundy suede.

As the band made its way toward the stairwell that connected the dressing room to the stage, the backup gospel singers, a first-time luxury, followed close behind. The procession moved slowly down the six flights of steel and concrete, which formed a sort of vertical echo chamber. The singers ran scales as they descended, and invited Howard to join them, to take advantage of the acoustics and the last few remaining seconds to prep her vocal cords.

“I don’t really know how to warm up,” she said, laughing. Maybe she was joking. Maybe not. Then, as if to punctuate the point, she let loose a guttural roar that reverberated up and down the stairwell. She laughed again just before she walked through the door to the stage, where a thousand fans screamed at the first glimpse of her. Then she turned around and shouted the University of Alabama rally cry back to the musicians assembled in the stairwell, at the top of her lungs: “ROLLLLLL TIDE!”

Alabama Shakes’s rapid ascent has been largely fueled by Howard’s singular stage presence. When she first steps in front of a crowd, there are moments when she seems like the awkward adolescent she used to be, all too aware of her size, her looks and her lumbering gait. But when she hits that first big unrestrained note — her face contorted as if possessed — or a thundering chord on her Gibson, stomping and quaking, preaching and confessing, her jaw jutting out like an angry, pouting child’s, everything changes. It becomes impossible to look anywhere else. She can sound by turns ferocious or angelic, sometimes in the same song. When she sings about heartbreak, it feels as if, right there at that moment, she is consumed by it…

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