Shaken And Stirred By Alabama
By the time you read this, South by South West, arguably the largest music festival held each year at Austin, Texas, will be winding down. Thirteen hundred odd bands would have performed at more than 90 venues. And festival-goers—I envy them all—would have discovered tons of new musicians, many of them obscure but many among them that are likely to make ripples in the coming months. For several years now, I have had a long-standing objective of making it to the festival and drowning in the non-stop gigs for four consecutive days. I haven’t managed to fulfill that objective yet. Sigh!
But the next best thing to being at SXSW, which marks its 20th anniversary this year, is to scour the net to try and discover some great bands. I did and found several. But none of them stunned me as much as one called Alabama Shakes. The quartet is from Alabama. They play basic instruments, nothing fancy. Two guitars, bass and drums. But there are the vocals. I am not really sure how to describe the vocals. I could say they are powerful, dripping with soul, earthy, quick and capable of a range—from deeply low lows to incredibly high highs—that is truly unbelievable. And yet that would not do justice to what Brittany Howard, Alabama Shakes’ frontwoman and guitarist, makes you feel when she sings. I think what would do justice to her vocals is to simply say that I have not heard anything like this in a long, long time.
Alabama Shakes is a new band. So new that their first full-length album will be released only this April. It’s called Boys and Girls and I will most definitely be buying it. They had an eponymously titled EP out last year and if you are an enterprising searcher of the net, you can download a live gig or two. Have you noticed how, I’m 300 words into this column and I’m so gob smacked by Alabama Shakes that I have not even begun to talk about the kind of music they play? That’s right. They are indeed a great band.
It’s easy to classify Alabama Shakes as purveyors of southern rock. After all, they’re from Alabama. But that would not be entirely on the dot. Theirs is a brand of blues-rock that meets soul, gets rolled and kneaded into a delectable sound and then gets sprayed with some garage rock. That’s right. Brittany Howard and her mates spent their early band years playing covers—they played Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, James Brown and Otis Redding—and the sounds of all of those legendary musicians helped shape and influence what they compose themselves.
Some critics have compared Brittany Howard to Janis Joplin. That is unfair. To Howard. Who is far better. Howard has a voice that can be melodious, yet guttural; soulful and ironic; and most of all, one that never fails to make you very, very happy. On YouTube—till you get hold of their first album next month—there are a few videos of the Shakes. I’d recommend listening to three songs for starters—You Ain’t Alone, Hold On and I Found You. You’ll most likely like them a lot. Next, you can search for a concert they played at San Francisco’s The Independent on January 26 this year and if you’re lucky download it. By now you’ll be a convert. As I expect will be hundreds of people who watch them at SXSW this year. When they become famous, which they will, do remember that you read about Alabama Shakes here in DC before you heard of them.
There are plenty other bands that will have made heads turn at SXSW this year but, firstly, I wasn’t there to tell you all about them, and secondly, this page has a word limit that I have to adhere to. But there are two that I must mention. Kishi Bashi (like the name? I do too!) is an American-Japanese musician who makes electro-pop. Don’t scoff. His is a brand of electro-pop that could make anybody dance joyously. Seriously, I did too and those who know me know that I have two left legs. Kishi Bashi you may have already heard—perhaps not his solo projects but as part of a pop-psych band that I have mentioned before, Of Montreal.
I’m going to pursue the Kishi Bashi trail and try and get more of his stuff. Last year, he released Room For Dream and this year a shorter one called Split 7”. Perfect mood lifters. The third band—and I’m running out of space here–pre-SXSW that I discovered is called Mr Gnome. They are a duo—singer and guitarist Nicole Barille and drummer and pianist, Sam Meister. Space psychedelia is how some critics describe the duo’s ethereal, unpredictable music and if you want to be pushed out of your comfort zone, they’re good band to reach for. The album I’m currently listening to is especially surreal. It’s called Madness in Miniature and came out last year. I believe they have five more out since 2005, including a couple of EPs. After Madness, I’m going to look for those.