5:29 PM CST, March 7, 2012
Brittany Howard stomps, shakes, whispers, and roars, riding the wave thrown up by her fast-rising band, Alabama Shakes. There’s the vulnerability and passion of bedrock soul in the vocals, the dynamics of the blues and the fury of garage-punk in the quartet’s music.
“Are you scared to wear your heart on your sleeve?/Are you scared of me?,” Howard sings on “You Ain’t Alone,” the tumultuous song that anchors the Shakes’ debut album, “Boys & Girls,” due out in April on ATO Records.
“I think what’s wrong with too many people is they’re too reserved,” the singer says from her home in Athens, Ala., just before the band heads out on a tour that brings it to Lincoln Hall on Friday. “They’re miserable but they don’t want to talk about it. The biggest lie in the world is in answer to the question, ‘How are you?’ People usually say, ‘I’m fine,’ but that’s mostly bull. Everyone wants to display being perfect. They tell themselves and their friends, ‘I drive this car, I own this house, I’m fine.’ People ball up into these tight wads of repression.”
For Howard, writing and playing music is the antidote to what isn’t fine about her life. “Songwriting is like talking to yourself when there is no one to talk to,” she says.
Howard did a lot of that as a kid, spending weekends in her room experimenting with instruments and a tape recorder, making up lyrics and layering sounds, unconsciously preparing herself for a life now consumed by music.
“There’s not a whole lot to do in Athens,” she says. “When I was 13, I just started entertaining myself by writing songs. I’d sit in my room for 10 hours playing the same song, stacking vocals, trying out different drum beats, realizing no one would ever hear this but having so much fun. I guess I got my voice from just doing that so often. After a while you get better at it. A vocal coach might call that ‘training.’”
Her taste in music was considerably more esoteric than the typical teen in a small-town northern Alabama high school. “I spent a lot of time with my grandmother’s music: Dion, the Platters, the Drifters, the Temptations – I grew up on that,” she says. Later she discovered T. Rex and David Bowie, and got her education in roots music from Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stones albums.
“I was amazed to find out they were British because they were singing all these old blues and country songs,” she says with a laugh
After years of solitary woodshedding, Howard was itching to start a band, but could find no suitable collaborators interested in the same kind of music as she was. Then she saw Zac Cockrell wearing an At the Drive In T-shirt in her high school psychology class and instinctively knew she had found her musical match. She invited Cockrell over to work on music, and soon they were writing and recording songs in a “jam trailer” in her back yard, a makeshift studio with power lines running from her parents’ house so the fledgling band could plug in and record.
Eventually Howard and Cockrell added Steve Johnson on drums and Heath Fogg on guitar, and in between day jobs (Howard was a postal carrier) began hammering out an identity. The band had to play covers to get gigs in the conservative northern Alabama scene, but soon began filtering in originals that caught the attention of the Drive By Truckers’ Patterson Hood, who invited Alabama Shakes to open for the Truckers on tour last year.
The band had good songs – the core of “Girls & Boys” made up their repertoire – but it also had robust stage presence, embodied by Howard’s holding-nothing-back style. “I’m not that flashy in private, I’m usually pretty reserved,” she says. “But on stage, it’s about not being afraid of anything – of anyone judging you. It’s one place you can be free. So why not sing as loud as you can, hoop and holler and jump around? A show is a moment. When it’s done, it’s over. I find that extremely liberating.”
Alabama Shakes: 10 p.m. Friday at Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln Av., $15; lincolnhallchicago.com.
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