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While everyone in the Alabama Shakes leaves their own unmistakable stamp on the music, for most, it’s Howard’s powerful charisma and show-stopping joie de vivre that first sucks you in. On stage, she’s a natural, and seems to possess zero inhibitions and zero posturing.
“I don’t know where it comes from,” she says. “I’ve always been like that. It’s probably an attention thing. When I was a little kid, I used to just ham it up. I find it extremely fun.”
Howard grew up surrounded by music, and caught the guitar-playing bug early on.
“I had this great uncle and he had this bluegrass band. They’d watch me a lot while my mom and dad worked. I’d be over there and he and his bluegrass band would get together in his shop – he worked on cars but he’d move everything out of the way. I guess I was like three or four, and I just got a kick out of it – all these guys over here playing all these instruments. I didn’t quite understand what was going on. But they played a bunch of Elvis Presley songs – in bluegrass format. I knew the songs but I’d never heard them like that before. I was just stomping my feet and singing like any kid would do. I loved it. I didn’t know how to play anything, but I wanted to.
“My great-uncle would put a guitar in my room at night. Then when everyone was sleeping, I would un-tune the entire guitar. I wouldn’t play it, I’d just take the tuning pegs and un-tune it. Just listen to the strings bend in and out of tune. He’d tune that guitar for me every day, and I’d always un-tune it. I guess that’s when I realized I really wanted to learn to play an instrument.”
When she was a little older, Howard’s sister got a guitar, but never played it. One day Howard took it to school and asked a female music teacher to help her re-string and tune it.
“I never knew women could play guitar. I was never exposed to any women guitar players. She started playing songs and it was really awesome. And I remember thinking, ‘Girls can play guitar. She’s playing guitar. I want to play guitar.’
“I started immediately writing songs on it. I did not know how to play. I just kept playing and playing, with no proper lesson.” As it turned out, she would have a knack for it.
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It’s a chilly winter day in Chicago and the Alabama Shakes are getting ready for the second night of two sold-out shows in the Windy City. They’re playing a listening room-style venue called S.P.A.C.E., which often invites performers to pick from their built-in studio’s vintage instrument and gear collection. That night, Fogg decides to play his Epiphone Sheraton through a custom vintage-style Victoria amplifier.
The Shakes are on fire tonight, even though Howard is nursing a sore throat and is a little late to the stage because she’s been making tea. Nevertheless, she puts down her guitar for the heavy, up-tempo number, “Heat Lightning,” takes the microphone off its stand and moves across the stage, revving up the crowd with her expressive gesticulations and wild histrionics. Though Howard is the show’s focal point, it’s also hard to take your eyes off Cockrell. With his eyes closed and a sublime smile on his face, he’s lost in the music.
At the end of the night, back in S.P.A.C.E.’s green room, Fogg puts a Son House record on the turntable, while Cockrell admires a nice vinyl copy of Junip’s Fields. Asked how she’s feeling, Howard admits, “I’m hurting.” The next day they will drive to St. Louis for the last show of the tour, then back home for the holidays.