by George Scherer
George Scherer is a folk singer, performing original tunes, as well his unique versions of crowd favorites. He performs his solo, acoustic, folk-rock and country blues music in clubs, bars, and restaurants around Birmingham, Alabama and the Southeast. He also writes music review articles for Tannehill Trader and they are featured here in Scharing Thoughts.
This past month, I spent a lot of time listening to the first album by The Alabama Shakes, the Athens, AL band who have risen over the last month from obscurity, to being one of the hottest bands in rock music. Let me jump on the bandwagon with, it seems, everyone else in the music world, (from Jack White, Robert Plant, and the Drive By Truckers, to music journalists around the world) and say that The Alabama Shakes are absolutely the Real Deal. It’s obvious from the opening drumbeat of the records’ first track, “Hold On”, but by the time Brittany Howard finishes her first line of lyrics, she’s removed any doubts you might have had.
Howard drives this record and her voice is extraordinary. There are the obvious comparisons with Aretha or Tina Turner or Janis Joplin or Amy Winehouse, so many of the other great soul singers. There’s the gospel grit of Aretha and the coy sexiness of Turner and Joplin, but there is also an element of Van Morrison in “You Ain’t Alone” and there’s teardrop in her voice like Nora Jones or Patsy Cline or Willie Nelson for that matter. But like all of those, her voice is her own. There’s a pleading and courage in it that says as much as the words she’s singing. When she sings, “Bless my heart, bless my soul/Didn’t think I’d make it to 23”, you get the feeling that she really means it.
However, this is not a Brittany Howard solo record. This is a band that she is an important member of. One thinks of the Rolling Stones in their prime form of the late 60s and early 70s and regardless of gender, there’s probably no singer she should be more compared to than Jagger. She’s got the bravado and voice that comes along only occasionally, and when it does it usually leads to rock stardom.
The band however is built for her and they are a talented back up crew. She first met bassist Zac Crockell in high school and they began jamming and writing songs. They say they experimented with different styles from roots rock to classic rock to soul and country music, before deciding on the hybrid sound that has made they so fresh sounding. They added drummer Steve Johnson later and began playing local gigs around their hometown of Athens, AL, then filled in the lineup with Heath Fogg on lead guitar. They also use a good deal of keyboards, which I assume are being played by Ben Tanner who plays with them on the road. Each member is fantastic, in that loose, yet tight way that few bands can produce on a constant basis. The opening riff on “Hang Loose” is so simple and yet, so effective, that you feel like it’s been around forever and it drives the message of the song as much as Howard’s lyric and vocal.
The rhythm section is solid in a way that reminds me of the Muscle Shoals soul records of the late 1960s, but you don’t get the feeling that these guys are on any kind of nostalgia trip. They’ve just found an amalgamation of sounds that suits their world and they’re turning the rest of us on to it. The piano and organ playing is outstanding and, as for Fogg on lead guitar, his solos and riffs are simple and clean, but sound so sweet that it doesn’t need much in the way of effects. No, this is certainly no one-person show.
The songs are all kept short, with only “You Ain’t Alone” clocking in towards 5 minutes and like the best pop songwriters they know how to say what they’ve got to say and get out of town. “Goin’ to a Party” is one of my favorite cuts, with its Muscle Shoals meets Jamaica feel, and jazzy vocal. Plus, with lines like “You gotta take me home/I know you ain’t drinkin’ water/you gotta take me back/I’m still somebody’s daughter,” that just knock me out with their simple poetry, I can’t get enough of this. The title cut is a tremendous song, and “I Ain’t the Same” simmers with the Memphis heat of an Al Green record. “Heavy Chevy” (a bonus track) is pure joyous, rock and roll, complete with Big Mama Thornton screams and the defiance and freedom that rock music represents. Every now and then we need someone like the Shakes to remind us how it’s suppose to sound.
This is how the great groups of rock and roll came together, by getting together after school and playing music, then writing their own music and taking that music out to the local clubs and playing it every night until somebody finally listened. It’s not done with the late Dick Clark or Clive Davis’ model of American Bandstand-Teen-American-Idol and so on. This is real music being made by real people and real musicians who care more about singing and playing their souls bare than about how much money it will bring them in the end.
On a final note, I wanted to mention that my friend Steve Norris has a fine new CD out and although I make it a policy not to review the CDs of my personal friends, I want you to know that you can go to his site at www.JourneymanGeezer.com and purchase a copy of it.