at South by Southwest. (Photo courtesy John Boydston)
AUSTIN, Texas -- Buzz bands at the annual South by Southwest music conference have a lot in common with those who win best new artist at the Grammys. You tend to not hear much from them afterward. (Last year, conference attendees and wristband fans clawed over each other to get into showcases by London fuzz-rock band Yuck. Who? Exactly.)
Possibly the buzziest of the buzz bands at this year's SXSW (so far) is Alabama Shakes -- but this is a band you're going to hear much more from.
Fresh out of the piney woods just an hour downriver from the legendary soul studios at Muscle Shoals -- and with only a couple of EPs to their credit thus far -- Alabama Shakes is a fiery quintet of youngsters playing country-soul that both Skynyrd and Otis could love.
The anticipation generated one of the largest crowds ever for a daytime showcase at the Austin Convention Center, with several hundred filling a ballroom for the group's Wednesday afternoon performance. The band just played a sold-out gig last weekend at Chicago's Lincoln Hall.
For the most part, the hype is deserved. Lead singer Brittany Howard is a cool storm, one of those young singers exuding confidence beyond her years and presence possibly beyond this earthly realm. She pulls her accent back, often singing through rounded cheeks that add an extra dimension to her growls and wails. Her voice isn't a wide-ranging beast (her high notes are thin), but it's a beast nonetheless, purring like Macy Gray or exploding in very occasional fits of Janis Joplin.
The band supports her with remarkably restrained backing, controlling the dynamics of every song -- slowing down when it wants to get fast, and vice versa -- like making great love. Each player keeps things tuneful but spare -- leaving huge spaces for Howard to snake through, then unleashing rare bursts of carefully timed fury. In that respect, they could use a songwriting mentor; at least half the set features rocking soul numbers that develop the same way, always ending with the band grinding hard while Howard wails something appropriately animalistic and urgent over and over ("Feels good!" or "Yes, he did!!" or "Well, all right!!!"). The band's ninth and final song, the dramatic groove of "You Ain't Alone," followed that template and resulted in their second standing ovation of the set.