Alabama Shakes: Are they worthy of all the buzz?

by oz on March 28, 2012

I think I heard the word “derivative” at SXSW more than any other time in my life. Nick Waterhouse was one of my favorite discoveries of the week and his sound (and look) owes much to the late 50′s/ early 60′s sounds of Buddy Holly, Otis Redding and Chuck Berry. He has only released a 4-song EP, but he was on everyone’s lips at SXSW.

As I walked through the crowd during his performance at Shangrila in Austin, I overheard a conversation where someone said something along the lines of “He’s a great guitarist and he can sing, but the sound is…(you guessed it) derivative.” I stopped for a second, about to comment, but then kept on moving. It was like the real world, in-person equivalent of blog commenting, except I couldn’t be completely anonymous and depending on what I might say next, I had a real risk of getting my ass beat.

Alabama Shakes were arguably the biggest buzz band of SXSW 2012. Like Waterhouse, they also have only released a 4-song EP. I’ve been sitting on an advanced copy of their debut, Boys and Girls, and Shirk finished up production on our session with the band, so I’ve become acclimated (and fallen in love).

Before heading to SXSW, I heard plenty of “what have they done to deserve this?” commentary from naysayers, so I was eager to catch a live set and see the crowd reaction. The band tore through a set that included much of the material on their upcoming album. The sound is full of blues, soul and powered by Brittany Howard’s insanely good vocals brimming with raw emotion. And maybe a tinge of anger.  99% of the crowd was cheering, dancing, screaming, high-fiving (maybe just us high-fiving). But somewhere in the crowd on my way to grab a round of cold ones, I heard it again. “These guys are great, but the sound is…”

Derivative.

Ladies and Gentlemen (to steal a phrase used generously by another of the accused “derivative” musicians, Justin Townes Earle), there are times, even at SXSW, when the music critic in us needs to subside. SXSW is an annual guy trip for us, so our intent in Austin may be different than others in the crowd, but I made it a point to enjoy the music at a more primitive level. Basically, does this shit make me feel good? I actually closed my eyes during their set to focus only on the sound. Yup. That shit felt good.

Derivative? Maybe. But I wasn’t alive to see Buddy Holly, Otis Redding or Chuck Berry. If new musicians have the technical skill and vocal abilities to draw comparisons to legends, count me in. For those paying attention, Waterhouse and Alabama Shakes have plenty of freshness and creativity to justify the accolades.

If you’re a naysayer, I’m not about to apologize for joining the buzz machine. I loved their session with us and their new album is an addiction for me. And if you’re concerned that there’s no gas left in their tank, they also performed a new track at SXSW that you won’t find on Boys & Girls. See it below and look out next week when we release our Shakes session in conjunction with their album release.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

jesselun March 28, 2012 at 11:20 am

right on man…they’re a great band, one of many. Caught up in the “I heard about them first” ego explosion that is SXSW. I hope the Shakes are successful and there’s no blowback

Woody March 28, 2012 at 12:55 pm

They play real instruments. Write great tunes. Rock every single time you see them like their lives depended on it. I would say yes.

kodachrome March 28, 2012 at 1:23 pm

Well said. Love listening to them. Love watching them. They are derivative of awesomeness.

Buzzman3535 March 29, 2012 at 5:15 pm

i don’t get it.

I have no problem with this band getting a lot of slaps on the back…but the hype seems to outweigh the music in my opinion. This all feels like front row bandwagon hipster bullshit.

Maybe in 2012, in a soul-starved universe this flys…but if Charles Bradley is on at the same time i’m going to watch the screaming eagle.

Chris P April 6, 2012 at 5:26 pm

Buzzman, yup you don’t get it at all.

amanda April 9, 2012 at 4:05 pm

to quote a favorite band of mine…”there’s nothing new under the sun” (first aid kit). all we have are the thing we love that influence us and who we are and what we do. if i was there it certainly would have gotten my dander up to hear so many “critics” deriding someone for being “derivative”. i might even have been tempted to comment and say if you can do better why don’t YOU get up there and play something original. go on! try!

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