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Shakin' all over
7:00am Saturday 5th May 2012 in Music
In a matter of months Alabama Shakes have catapulted from a tiny US town to top of the UK album charts, but who are they? Now preparing for their first headline tour, here's the low-down on the band and their phenomenal debut album Boys & Girls.
By Andy Welch.
Until a few months ago, hardly anyone had heard of Alabama Shakes. A few mysterious songs emerged online and various blogs, websites and Twitter lit up with adulation.
Refreshingly, no convoluted story accompanied the music as is often the way with buzz bands. It was all about the music: Southern-fried, late Sixties-sounding blues rock with a jaw-dropping vocalist in the shape of Brittany Howard.
If there's something gloriously old-fashioned about the music, it's a joy to meet the band, who all come from the small Alabama town of Athens, and discover it crosses over into their personalities too.
Guitarist Heath Fogg, the oldest member at 27 (Steve Johnson is 26, Zac Cockrell is 24 and powerhouse vocalist Howard is just 23), is full of warm, polite Southern charm.
Put it to him that you enjoy the band's debut record Boys & Girls and he responds with "Aw, gee, thanks" like something from a Mark Twain novel.
Ask him how he finds interviews and promotional work and he drawls: "Well if this is work then I don't mind so much."
If Boys & Girls sounds as if it was lost down the back of a drawer in 1968, only to be found and released in 2012, Fogg could be from a bygone age too.
"I don't know about all this fuss," he says. "It's kind of strange - something people tell us about, rather than noticing it happening ourselves. Brittany gets it more than the rest of us because she gets recognised.
"She was eating barbecue at home and someone took a photo and put her picture in the paper. For me, I don't feel any buzz or hype until we play a show."
Unsurprisingly for a band who started out playing covers of classic rock'n'roll songs in local bars, the Alabama Shakes live shows are tight, energetic affairs.
When they made their UK live debut at a tiny pub in north London in February, it was the hottest ticket in town, a couple of hundred people crammed into a space the size of a living room.
Antipodean actor Russell Crowe, who seems to mention the band whenever he can, turned up with friends, while Jamie Oliver tweeted the band the following morning to apologise for not being able to make it. He apparently first heard them while on one of his crusading road trips around the US.
The two subsequent shows were moved to a larger room at the pub upstairs, while their forthcoming tour begins on May 3 in a venue that holds almost 1,500.
"It's overwhelming, really," says Fogg. "Things are going really well, better than I ever thought they would."
Before forming, the four-piece all knew of each other from playing in other bands, although they had never actually played together. Eventually Howard, Cockrell and Johnson came together, and when Fogg asked the trio to support his then band they agreed, providing he played with them.
The quartet now rent a house together in Athens where they rehearse, although they don't live there.
"It's not like The Monkees, you know. We're not all in one room on bunk beds," jokes Fogg.
In reality, former postwoman Howard lives on a trailer park surrounded by scrapped cars, while Cockrell and Fogg share a house, although none of that really matters any more - none of them are going to be at home for the foreseeable future.
If things are taking off in the UK, their career looks just as rosy in their native America and all over Europe, with a run of sold-out dates planned in each territory.
"We're seeing a lot of places for the first time as we travel," says Fogg. "The best thing about Athens is that it's easy to get out of," he adds, half joking.
"If I wanted to see a band play I had to travel - 90 minutes to Birmingham or Nashville in Tennessee, three hours to Memphis, four hours to Atlanta or six hours to New Orleans. You've really gotta want to see a band to drive six hours, but believe me I've done it.
"We've been together three years this May. I always wanted to play, although I never thought it was a career choice. It was something I was going to do at some level, I guess, although you never know what tomorrow will bring. If this does all end tomorrow, then that's OK. I've had some dreams come to life already."
So far, those dreams would include supporting their beloved musical forebears Drive By Truckers and playing with Booker T, of Booker T & The MGs, writer of Green Onions.
Cockrell is a dyed-in-the-wool fan of classic soul and RnB ("he's like a walking encyclopaedia of Stax, Motown and Chess") and, according to Fogg, almost needed smelling salts to bring him round before taking the stage with the veteran organ player.
Another dream will come true supporting Jack White on part of his forthcoming world tour. Given Alabama Shakes' musical influences - Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Janis Joplin, golden-era American RnB and Southern rock - it's no surprise to hear the former White Stripe, now a solo artist with a phenomenal album of his own in Blunderbuss, is a fan.
White invited the band to play in his Nashville record store, Third Man, and subsequently released a seven-inch single of the performance.
"We're all huge admirers of Jack White," says Fogg. "The things he's done. Man, I loved White Stripes, and the whole Detroit garage rock thing he started in the early 2000s.
"I was in high school then, and I loved bands like The Dirtbombs and The Detroit Cobras. I saw Detroit Cobras when I was at college once," he says, going on to explain how disappointed he was the band arrived two hours late on stage.
"I guess that taught me to be punctual. Say what you like about Alabama Shakes, but we're always on time."