Amidst the entertainment industry’s marketing barrage of prepackaged, commoditized entertainment, it’s sometimes hard to find a shred of true authenticity. This is particularly so in the music sector, where this year’s hot new act is often a reheated version of last year’s trend, and the term “derivative” is a marketing strategy, rather than an indictment. In this context, when something truly organic and highly original arises, sui generis, before your eyes, it’s hard not to get downright giddy.
The first night of the music portion of this year’s SxSW Festival, Weeping Elvis was invited by ATO Records to attend a taping of the Austin City Limits TV program showcasing the Alabama Shakes out of tiny Athens, AL. It took place at the spectacular new ACL Moody Theater, where no seat is more than 75 feet from the stage.
Even though their first LP doesn’t come out until April 10, there was a ridiculous amount of buzz around the Shakes, both at “South By” and on the Internet. Often, when there’s this much advance buzz, the actual experience is less than what’s advertised. In this case, the hype wasn’t nearly ecstatic enough.
As we walked into the Moody Theater, nothing could’ve prepared us for what we were about to hear.
From the instant that 22-year-old lead singer Brittany Howard opened her mouth to sing the first notes of “Hold On,” until the band closed the hour-long set with “Heavy Chevy,” the studio audience was utterly mesmerized. Could something this soulful, soul-searing, and authentic really be happening? Had we been transported back to a Stax Records recording session in 1967?
Her voice is at once throaty yet ephemeral, urgent yet soft and plaintive. Over the course of a verse, she can go from howling and growling to whispering prayerfully, then back to raucous and rollicking. It is as though Janis Joplin and Otis Redding had a baby, and taught her to play Chuck Berry guitar licks on a classic Gibson SG. Backed by the thick Southern soul and vintage garage grooves of the Shakes (complete with an extra helping of Hammond organ, Booker T style), Howard took the audience through the full range of human emotions, and back again. Then they did it again the next day at Stubbs BBQ, and again later that same day at the Radio Stage in the Convention Center.
So far, Weeping Elvis writers have caught The Shakes at three of the SxSW shows and showcases (of the seven that they are playing). And we keep getting blown away, time and time again. This band isn’t retro; this band is timeless.
To say that the Alabama Shakes live up to the hyperbolically positive advance buzz is an understatement—they aren’t just the best band at SxSW, they might be the best, most authentic new American band of the 21st Century.