When Alabama Shakes take the Virgin Mobile FreeFest stage on Saturday, the quartet — all from Athens, Alabama — will likely play its biggest hit, "Hold On," within the first few songs.
This is a deliberate move, and also a sort of challenge to the audience: With our most popular song out of the way early on, will you stick around?
"'Hold On' is still the one," said guitarist Heath Fogg. "The iPhones come out when we play that one. We play it first, second [or] third. We get it over with. As long as people stick around after that, we're happy."
Fogg, singer/guitarist Brittany Howard, bassist Zac Cockrell and drummer Steve Johnson have had many happy nights since the release of their debut album, April's "Boys & Girls."
With a growing reputation for fiery performances and the songs to match, Alabama Shakes has spent a considerable chunk of this year converting the curious to fawning fans, one gig at a time. Admirers include Adele, Drive-By Truckers and FreeFest headliner Jack White.
The Shakes' appeal has a vast reach. Over the course of 12 tracks, "Boys & Girls" proudly showcases the group's influences — Southern roots rock, the soul of Daptone Records, the gritty, anonymous bar bands across America — all anchored by Howard's bluesy vocals and naked lyrics.
"It's real and comes from the heart," Howard wrote in an email. "I think people have a yearning for that right now."
While the Shakes have plenty of charging songs capable of moving the crowd (the Rolling Stones-inspired "I Ain't the Same," and the explosive album-closer "On Your Way" among them), it's the band's quiet moments, full of control and poise, that surprise.
"You Ain't Alone," a gut-wrenching ballad subtly propelled by Howard's raw delivery, proves the group isn't merely aping rock 'n' roll's ghosts, but doing something interesting on its own. It's refreshing, but has a timeless quality, too.
The 24-year-old Howard, who's been making bedroom recordings since she was 13, says "You Ain't Alone" was almost left in a discarded pile of half-baked ideas and unfinished songs.
"I wrote it three years ago," she said. "It was a song that I could never really finish on my own. But Zac found an old recording of it, and we took it to practice and all together came up with an ending. I knew we had something there because I didn't really tire of playing it."
Given the cohesiveness of "Boys & Girls," that sense of teamwork has served the Shakes well up to this point. Band members constantly bounced ideas off one another throughout the recording process.
"'What about that Motown drum sound on that Diana Ross song?" Fogg recalled. "But then we were also saying, 'What about this My Morning Jacket sound?'"
In the studio, the Shakes work like a democracy. But in concert, there's also no question who's the leader of the group. Howard, with her guttural wails a la Janis Joplin and magnetic stage presence, commands a room. Fogg happily cedes the spotlight.
"People automatically respond to her," Fogg said. "Everybody is good at what they do but she's extraordinary at being a front-person for our group. And that takes a lot of pressure off me. I'm not a virtuoso guitar player or anything. I like to sit back in the shadows and do my thing."
This plan of attack — where Howard leads the charge through sheer power and prowess — is working. In less than three whirlwind years, the Shakes have gone from the garage to performing in front of thousands at the Bonnaroo Music Festival. The group will tour until the spring, when they will take a few months off to work on a follow-up album, according to Howard.
Fogg says the songs they've written so far have been a mix of straight-forward rock tracks and "low, slow ballads, like gospel-inspired songs." It seems safe to assume the Shakes will continue balancing their sound with aching soul and driving muscle.
"That's what we like — that dynamic to be able to set people up to knock them down," Fogg said.
If you go
Alabama Shakes perform Saturday at Virgin Mobile FreeFest at Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia. Jack White, Nas, Skrillex and many more will also perform. Doors open at 11 a.m. Free tickets are no longer available, but Freemium tickets are $49.50. Call 877-435-9849 or go to merriweathermusic.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun