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Brittany Howard is back in Athens, Alabama, over holiday break, 2011. The band has just wrapped up a much-buzzed-about tour through the East Coast and Midwest, and has a few weeks off before things start to heat up again. But Howard is behind on her holiday shopping. She puts the phone on hold while she buys a scarf and a pair of gloves for a friend, then resumes her story of the early days of the Shakes.
“My great-grandfather built that house and everything in it. He’s not a plumber, not an electrician, not a roofer – he’s not a house-builder. So that house is really unique, in and of itself. It had a remarkably huge bedroom – I don’t know why it was so big. I moved in and kind of adopted it.”
“We set up a P.A. in there – we did not have good equipment, by any means – a raggedy drum set, this really old piano I bought for 100 dollars; moved it in the back of a pickup truck.”
“It was pretty simple,” says Fogg of the band’s early practices. “We loved playing, so that’s the only thing that mattered – getting together and making music with your friends. If we could get a gig, that was a bonus. But gigs were few and far between.”
Fogg had, more or less, moved on from Tuco’s Pistol. “I guess it was more up my alley, the route they were going. I really love garage rock and classic R&B. Zac is a walking encyclopedia of classic R&B and soul music. We immediately had something in common there. Brittany, she knows a lot about that too, but she’s a rock and roller. She just oozes pure, raw power. I don’t know how else to say it.”
Fogg describes the garage-rock revival of the early 2000s, after an era ruled by Korn and Limp Bizkit, as “a breath of fresh air.” In college, he’d played in bands that took the Nuggets compilations and groups like The Sonics and Oblivions as primary inspiration. “Those bands take older soul songs and play them their own way – raunchy and fun.” After playing with the Shakes, he immediately saw the potential in their being that type of band.
But, in North Alabama’s sterile live music scene, there weren’t many options for a band that was writing songs and playing them with a White Stripes-meets-Aretha Franklin intensity. So, they settled on playing four-hour sets of covers to rowdy crowds who liked to drink and dance at a venue called The Brick, in nearby Huntsville, Alabama. If you caught one of these early gigs, it probably wouldn’t have been a stretch to compare it to The Beatles’s Hamburg and Cavern Club days, or the Stones’ Sunday residence at London’s Crawdaddy Club.
The Shakes had a huge repertoire of classic rock and contemporary numbers: Led Zeppelin, My Morning Jacket, Loretta Lynn’s “Have Mercy,” The Black Keys’ “Countdown” and “Have Love, Will Travel” (“Ours was more like The Sonics version than The Keys,” says Fogg), The James Gang’s “Funk #49,” a James Brown medley with “Cold Sweat,” and “I’ll Go Crazy” (“Anything to keep the crowd pumped up and dancing.” )
“We played some terrible places,” says Howard. “But then when you play one place where people are like, ‘That was really cool, you guys are awesome,’ that makes the whole thing worth it. But we’ve been that band – where nobody cares or gives a shit. In some ways, we have definitely paid our dues.”