SXSW 2012: Hype doesn't phase the Alabama Shakes
All this attention seems a little new to Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard. She confessed, near the end of her set on the second night of the South by Southwest festival and conference, that she has no "urban wisdom" to pass onto the Austin, Texas, crowd. "I come from Alabama," she said. "I don't know much more than you. I just know that this is something I enjoy."
Forgive Howard for being a little bashful. The band's debut, "Boys & Girls," isn't out until April 10, and the Alabama Shakes don't adorn their music with any trendy flares or hip accents. Their sound is one born in small-town bars, where covers of ol' rhythm & blues tunes become road-tested tough and soulful originals emerge sounding timelessly familiar.
Yet Howard's band from nowhere came to Austin in 2012 at the center of a still-growing media storm. The band's Wednesday night showcase, for instance, was presented by nonprofit-turned-tastemaker NPR, and the Alabama Shakes took the stage after the return of pianist/bad girl Fiona Apple. This task, playing in front of industry revelers and worn-out reporters, was no easy one, but the Alabama Shakes handled the hype with workman-like resolve, and delivered one of what will hopefully be many head-turning SXSW sets.
Howard is a performer who instantly demands the spotlight. She stomps, she howls, she hollers and she grooves, tackling vintage soul and blues with the rock 'n' roll ferocity of Jack White. She haughtily saunters around Heath Fogg's slow-stepping melody on "Boys & Girls" and leads "Be Mine" to a caldron of passion that is the song's rousing grand finale of keyboards and guitars. It isn't always pretty -- there's a roll-up-your-sleeves grit to many of the Alabama Shakes songs -- but such tuneful efficiency shouldn't be taken for granted.
The Alabama Shakes weren't the only band that impressed with a direct approach Wednesday night. The L.A.-based, sister-led trio Bleached showed that our city still has plenty of room left for another girl group-inspired rock act next to the Dum Dum Girls and Best Coast. The band has more than a dozen shows scheduled for this week -- its Wednesday night set at Austin's Beauty Bar was its third of the day -- and delivered one tart garage rock hook after another.
Later, Brooklyn punk act the Men delivered rock 'n' roll at a far more relentless pace, yet still managed to eke out consistent energy-boosting riffs among the racket. The quartet's guitar work felt as if it were constantly threatening to trip over itself, but leads, solos, diversions and out-and-out fist raisers were expertly jammed into tightly packed anthems. The band sang of matters of the heart, but made clear there was no room for a dissenting opinion.
The earlier part of the evening was devoted to a lot of wandering that lead to numerous hits and misses. One of the act's worth recommending, however, was the Bon Iver-endorsed Polica. Backed by two drummers and a bass, singer Channy Casselle is given plenty of room to roam -- prowl, rather -- around fluid, low-end compositions. Effects-laden rhythms lend the songs a slight '80s prog feel, and tasteful digital embellishments give them a modern gloss. It's a weird mix, but Polica makes it work by treating each melody as a mystery to be slowly unwrapped.
-- Todd Martens from Austin, Texas
Image: The Alabama Shakes. Credit: Autumn de Wilde