Alabama Shakes singer Brittany Howard tries to remain grounded despite her band's rapid ascent.
When tickets for Alabama Shakes' Twin Cities debut next Thursday at First Avenue went on sale in April, they were gone within 24 hours -- and that should come as no surprise. Everything has happened at a breakneck pace for the young Southern rock band, one that was playing barroom Zeppelin covers in its hometown of Athens, Ala., just two years ago.
In just the past 12 months, the Shakes opened for Jack White, rocked "Letterman" and "Conan" and sent their debut album, "Boys & Girls," into the Billboard top 10. If you ask powerhouse frontwoman Brittany Howard, 23, about it, her response is as earnest as a Southern-fried riff.
"I have no idea," she answered last week, fresh off a string of European shows and starting in on a largely sold-out run of U.S. dates. "Maybe it has something to do with the fact we're not really trying to be cool or fool anybody."
Pretense has never been part of the Alabama Shakes equation. Formed in 2009, the punk-tinged blues outfit struck buzz-gold right off the bat with a modest four-song EP in 2011, one that spurred a blog frenzy and found a kindred spirit in Drive-By Truckers frontman Patterson Hood, who slotted the rookie band to open several Truckers shows last year. The New York Times, NPR and the rest of the taste-making pack were soon onboard.
Wasting no time (sensing a trend here?), the band issued "Boys & Girls" in April. Buoyed by the slow-burning single "Hold On," the album escapes revisionist blues-rock trappings by injecting swampy soul, punk-rock punch and surplus swagger. The reviews -- which Howard says she shuns -- strike a common chord: The Shakes are bursting with raw potential.
"I feel we still have a lot to learn as a band," Howard said, echoing that sentiment. "Reading about how great you are is not gonna help. Instead, you should create something or write something. To me, it's a waste."
Learning how to channel the band's mishmash tastes is part of the learning process -- and it's also part of the fun. While Howard admits that comparisons with the Black Keys and White Stripes are apt, she says less obvious influences, such as Black Sabbath and David Bowie, are also present in the mix.
"We're not really on the same page," she said of her dynamic with bandmates Zac Cockrell, Heath Fogg and Steve Johnson. "Somebody will have an idea and that idea can go a million different ways."
Just east of Muscle Shoals, Ala., and south of Nashville, the Shakes' hometown is nestled between two of American music's most storied meccas. Howard, who began making bedroom recordings at 13, boasts a decades-spanning taste in music that begins with the Platters ('50s R&B), touches on T. Rex ('70s glam-rock) and extends into At the Drive-in ('90s post-punk).
But the simplicity of blues is something of a common thread, she says, adding that honest songwriting will always be the central thrust of her group. If that hardly sounds groundbreaking, it's not exactly the status quo in contemporary music. "It's just like in the '80s when everybody had this new technology and they wanted to shove it on everything," she said, referencing the digital shenanigans of Skrillex and other electronic-minded artists that are currently en vogue.
Instead, the analog-lovin' Howard hopes to model her career after the omnipresent Jack White, who invited the Shakes to open several dates on his current solo tour. The former White Stripes frontman even tapped them to release singles on Third Man Records, his boutique label.
"What I learned from [White] is really just don't second-guess yourself. If you think something's a cool idea just go for it," Howard said. "The man has built himself an empire from just drums and guitar."
Whether or not the Shakes ever reach the career heights of a Jack White, they are laying a solid foundation, making good on the early buzz and delivering the goods live and on record. Clearing those hurdles is made easier when you're packing a first-rate inborn weapon: Howard's knockout voice, which is garnering Janis Joplin and Otis Redding comparisons.
The grounded Southerner isn't dwelling on how far it can carry her band, though.
"As long as we're sincere about it, we're gonna keep doing it," she said. "There's just one expectation I have -- to keep learning."
Jay Boller • 612-673-1753