When Brittany Howard was 7 years old, she informed her Uncle Chad that she liked rock ’n’ roll. Her uncle asked what she meant by this. The future frontwoman/guitarist of the Alabama Shakes offered up Aqua, the colorful Danish group that gave the world the 1997 bubblegum pop hit “Barbie Girl.”
“It was like an atrocity,” she recalls of his horrified reaction with a chuckle on the phone from her home in Athens, Ala., during a rare break in the Alabama Shakes touring schedule. “He was like, ‘No!’ ”
He then set about giving his niece an education. “He was like, ‘This is Guns N’ Roses, and this is the Rolling Stones, and this is Kiss. This is rock ’n’ roll.’ ”
In other words, fans of the rookie rock quartet — which includes bassist Zac Cockrell, drummer Steve Johnson, and guitarist Heath Fogg – all owe Uncle Chad a debt of gratitude because, as Howard acknowledges, “I definitely wouldn’t be here without him.”
“Here” would be in the eye of the “next big thing” storm, which includes a tour that has taken them from an opening slot at the Paradise last October, to the headlining spot at the same venue for a sold-out show in April, to another sellout on Oct. 5 headlining a venue nearly three times as big, the House of Blues. Along the way, the group released its roundly praised debut, “Boys & Girls” — advanced by the slow-burning hit “Hold On”— and made fans and friends out of artists like the Drive-By Truckers, Jack White, Neil Young, and Booker T. Jones.
“It’s a strange feeling,” says Howard, of rubbing elbows with some of her heroes not long after hanging up her bag as a letter carrier. “I’m excited I got to play with Jack and Booker and Jim James and My Morning Jacket. It’s cool to get to know these people. What you don’t realize as a fan is that they are just people, and a lot of them are actually really great people. It’s weird how the hero thing goes away.”
One thing that isn’t strange for her is performing, which Howard was clearly born to do. In April at the Paradise, she and her bandmates summoned marrow-deep emotion in a sweaty and sanctified set during which the audience was such a loud participant that Howard turned to Cockrell at one point and asked, “What the [expletive] just happened?”
“I remember that one in particular,” she says with a laugh. “It was actually one of my favorite shows. The crowd was so good. They were like screaming at us at one point. And it was so loud.”
The audience was likely just trying to match Howard’s own fire, which is strictly a performance phenonemon, triggered by the crowds themselves. Offstage, she says, “I’m a different person, I’m pretty quiet at home.”
Life has been anything but quiet for the band, with barely enough time to acclimate to one size crowd before leapfrogging to the next. “I remember the first time we played our biggest shows, like 3,000 people,” she says. “We walked into this giant theater, and it had all these seats. I looked at my manager and I said, ‘Whoa, whoa, are we just using like the bottom level?’ And he said, ‘No, this place is sold out.’ I said, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know how to talk to that many people! What do I say to them?’ ”
Howard has figured it out, says Jay Sweet, editor-at-large at Paste magazine and producer of the Newport Folk Festival, at which the band turned in a typically incendiary performance.
“How many bands get their biggest hit out of the way with song two?” asks Sweet of the Shakes’ decision to play “Hold On” early in their set. “And then they really won the crowd over with the longest, slowest number. People at Newport will sit on their hands and completely ignore you unless you engage them, and she got every single person.”
He was even more bowled over when Howard joined My Morning Jacket for a tribute to the late Levon Helm of the Band. “Newport is 100 percent about collaboration. It’s not just what you do in your set, it’s what you add to the overall event,” says Sweet. “I’ve been doing this for five years and I can count on one hand the number of times that the hair on my arms stood up.”
Hopefully, Howard and her bandmates will continue to elicit that reaction and, she says, they are already at work on new songs for a follow-up.
“Me, I’m just a go-getter anyway by nature,” says Howard, who also counts David Bowie, Otis Redding, and AC/DC among her favorites. “I would love to have a record out as soon as possible. I just want to play some new songs.”
But given their extensive tour itinerary, with shows booked through next spring, it’s unclear when that might happen. But until they get back in the studio, Howard is going to enjoy the rock ’n’ roll ride.
“I like the laughing part of it,” she says when asked about the bright spots in the tour grind, citing Cockrell as the band comic. “When he’s in a good mood he just goes all day. And you’re just laughing all day. I love days like that.”
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