Listen to this track by Alabama rock ‘n’ soul, and so much more quartet Alabama Shakes. It’s “Hold On” a storming track as taken from their word-of-mouth meteoric 2012 debut Boys & Girls. The song is a single from that record, pulling in a myriad of influences from eras past.

Particularly evident is a strain of classic soul music that sounds like it came from Otis Redding’s pen is interwoven into the lines and the general feel on this song, and on others. But, the spirit of early ’70s British blues rock and hard rock, with traces of Led Zeppelin, the Faces, and the Stones, isn’t undetectable either.

Alabama Shakes
Photo: Pieter M. van Hattem / Contour by Getty Images

There’s something ineffable that roots the young band firmly into the now as well. In tapping into traditions of the past as they do, they somehow escape the cliches completely.  To rise above bar band blues, and to become a part of a grand continuum of disparate and complementary styles instead is a tremendously difficult feat.

It’s not been easy for many bands working out an identity in these kinds of musical milieus without the term ‘retro’ being mentioned. Carving a unique path through a musical landscape marked by many broad and asphalted sonic highways is a rare accomplishment. But, I think Alabama Shakes have done it.

But, how?

I think they’re able to do it so well because they’ve done their homework, and then done things their own way instead.They are aren’t just making musical references in this song as if it were an academic exercise. They’ve absorbed them fully, and are now expressing them from the inside out, naturally.They aren’t self conscious about the tired old theme that journalists, and bloggers for that matter, often force upon new bands; “influences”.

Establishing influences are a common place to start of course when presenting yourself as an act, or in writing about one.  It’s the easiest way for us to orient ourselves as listeners. In the end, what the listener gets from this song, and other songs from Alabama Shakes is more visceral than anything that has to do with the weight of musical history, or specific musical classifications.

Along with a sound that is tight as a drum, and characterized by almost supernatural ease with a wide range of material, singer and guitarist Brittany Howard in particular is a force of nature, with a voice that suggests a cloudbank full of thunder and lighting, yet heavenly, with a gossamer core of vulnerability as well. One might drape the mantles of any number of soul singers of the past on her shoulders. But, she’s a rocker too, as interested in hard rock as she is in the traditions of classic soul music. She says:

“Retro soul is not what we’re going for, though it’s understandable why people say it … We take inspiration from that, but we all understand Black Sabbath, too. On the record, we left a lot of room for whatever we want to do in the future.” [Read more]

Bassist Zac Cockrell is the bigger soul fan in the band. Drummer Steve Johnson is described by Howard as “a punk-metal” drummer. Lead guitarist Heath Fogg brings a varied range, from Jimmy Page grandiosity (listen to the Alabama Shakes version of “How Many More Times”), to spare and funky Steve Cropperesque flourishes.

These musics are very much related of course, which is something that is a valuable reminder embodied in the music of Alabama Shakes; rock music and R&B have always been a part of each other, and continue to be in the 21st Century.

Learn more about the band by visiting Alabama Shakes official site.


One thought on “Alabama Shakes Perform “Hold On”

  1. I was so excited to discover this band! They’re so refreshing in today’s musical landscape of AutoTuned clones. You’re absolutely right that they manage to give nod(s) to the past while at the same time feeling very much of the *now*. It doesn’t hurt that they are all very fine musicians. This band is a *unit*, not a frontwoman with a backing band.

    As for that frontwoman, Brittany Howard may be young but she must have an old soul. It’s not often that a talent like hers comes along. She blows me away.

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