AUSTIN, Texas - Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes is in a dressing room at Stubb's Bar-B-Q at the South by Southwest Music Festival as her young band is gearing up to play the biggest show of its life.
"I'm very free on stage," says the 23-year-old guitarist and earth-shaking singer whose vocal attack sends admirers scurrying for an apt point of comparison. Otis Redding? Janis Joplin? James Brown? She's about to demonstrate just what she means by being free with a terrifically energetic, unrestrained performance before a crowd of 2,000 at Stubb's that was broadcast live on National Public Radio.
"But I get in strange moods," Howard continues, as she fortifies herself with a plate from Stubb's that she pronounces just-fine but not nearly as good as the 'cue made by her Uncle Orange back home in Athens, Ala.
"Sometimes I'm fearless," she says. "And sometimes you feel like everyone is looking at you."
You can't blame the Shakes for drawing that conclusion.
The band's debut album, Boys & Girls (ATO ***), doesn't come out until Tuesday, a day after the Shakes play a sold-out show at the World Cafe Live in Philadelphia. But already the attention paid to the band has been intense.
Ever since their song "You Ain't Alone" was posted on the Nashville-based music blog Aquarium Drunkard in July, back before the Shakes added Alabama to their name, the soul-rock band has been lavished with praise for their unvarnished, elemental music - and been greeted by hype-wary skeptics wondering what the fuss is all about.
On the strength of a four-song EP that included the comforting wail "You Ain't Alone" and the even-better coming-of-age pep talk "Hold On," the group was named Paste Magazine's 2011 New Band of the Year. (Both songs are highlights of Boys & Girls.) When the then-unsigned act played the CMJ Music Marathon in Manhattan in October, the New York Times referred to their sound as "a thunderbolt dressed in blue jeans."
After that, the Shakes - who, along with their bespectacled lead singer, comprise bassist Zac Cockrell, guitarist Heath Fogg, drummer Steve Johnson, and touring keyboardist Ben Tanner - opened for the Alabama-born Drive-By Truckers. The Drive-By Truckers' bandleader, Patterson Hood, said the group "totally blew us off the stage in Winston-Salem." Soon, the band was signed to ATO, and went to Nashville to record Boys & Girls, which pulls from the soul stylings that Howard says she absorbed when she was living with her grandmother "and all we would listen to was Solid Gold oldies."
The night before the band's show at Stubb's, the Shakes had another show at Austin's Moody Theater, where they became the first band to play on the storied live-music TV show Austin City Limits before their debut album was released. (The taped episode will air on PBS in September.)
The Shakes have an impressive affinity for old-school R&B. Cockrell, for instance, who started writing songs with Howard after they met in a high school psychology class, is an enthusiast of obscure Southern soul great James Carr, whose "The Dark End of the Street" is referenced on "You Ain't Alone."
But there's also rock-and-roll in their bones. Howard cites Brown and Redding as singers who have shaped her, but also more surprising sources such as Bon Scott of AC/DC, big-band swinger Louis Prima, and "the young Conway Twitty, when he was a rock-and-roll singer, not a country singer." Her favorite songwriters, she says, are David Bowie, neo-hippie Devendra Banhart, and the guys in the Nashville baby band Fly Golden Eagle, of whom she is an ardent supporter.
"I didn't hear Pink Floyd till I was 15," Howard says, remembering when she first encountered "The Great Gig in the Sky" from The Dark Side of the Moon. "I was like, 'This is . . . amazing.' That changed everything."
Howard had begun writing songs a few years earlier, after she moved from the country into an apartment in downtown Athens, a town of 23,000 about 40 minutes up the road from Muscle Shoals, Ala., where Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, and the Rolling Stones, among others, recorded at Fame Studios in the 1960s and early 1970s.
"I was really bored and I didn't know what to do," Howard recalls. "There were some kids around who were way younger than me, so I couldn't hang out with them. So I found this guitar in the closet" - it had belonged to her older sister, who died of a brain tumor when Howard was 9 - "and it was like, I guess I'm going to learn how to play guitar, because I don't have anything better to do."
"I'd get excited if I could figure out how to play a rockabilly lick," she says. (A particularly powerful one fires the deliriously twitchy "Making Me Itch," which tore the house down at the Austin City Limits taping.) "I'll get all excited when I find a jazz chord, even though to someone who's studied jazz guitar, it's elementary. I'm like that with a lot of things. I do it my way, instead of opening a book."
The Shakes collaborated on the music on Boys & Girls, but Howard tends to handle the lyrics herself. The best, like "I Ain't the Same," have a nuanced perspective that mirrors the surprising vocal subtlety Howard displayed on stage in Austin, when she commanded audiences' attention with whispers as well as screams.
"That song's about when you were little and carefree and you always thought that life would be simple," she says. "Then you get to the age where you forget to think that way. I was just thinking that the other day: I am not the same person that I used to be."
Since last summer, things have changed rapidly. When the Shakes started playing together in 2009, "there wasn't even a stage," Howard says. "We just set up in a corner, and everybody thought you were going to suck. Nobody had any expectations. And then you got up there, and a lot of the times people were really glad you did. They were impressed, and it did something to them, which is really cool.
"Now," Howard goes on, "everybody has expectations. It's a little different. Everybody expects like a laser light show or something. They expect their heads to pop off when we come on stage."
That's all right by Howard, though. "I'm sure I'd be the same way if a band came to my town that everybody had been talking about." She laughs. "I'd probably go there and hope they [screw] up, so I can hate them.
"But we're just going to keep doing what we're doing," she concludes. "This is what we've been. And we've probably actually gotten better since we started."