Heath Fogg should be upset that his band’s touring van had broken down a few Fridays back en route to the Panorama NYC festival at Randall’s Island Park that his band was set to headline. Dealing with NYC traffic can be more than a bit trifling, even for veterans of traveling shows.
It would be understandable to get upset, being several hundred miles away from their home base of Athens, Alabama, and yet knowing how far he and his group have come in a few years may explain his laid-back attitude about this inconvenient road hiccup.
The lead guitarist, who speaks with a slight Southern drawl, along with his bandmates, bass player Zac Cockrell, drummer Steve Johnson, and rhythm guitarist/singer Brittany Howard, have made a mark both in the U.S. and beyond.
The group's passion for playing live music and embellishing their own two-album catalog of songs in concert has made Alabama Shakes one of the hottest touring acts in the world over the past four years.
The irony is that Fogg says the fame and success have not changed the group much. Their passion is the music and seeing how far they can expand their repertoire. They take things in stride.
“Just gotta sit back and enjoy the ride,” Fogg calmly announces. The band is on a tour that will bring Alabama Shakes to the Valley this Sunday at Comerica Theatre for the third local show in five years. “It’s still a surprise. It’s been a dream ,and I think it’s more than that. It has exceeded our dreams. I’m proud we all get to be a part of it all.
“Even today, we were trying to unload some stuff from the van we were in, and I had brought some golf clubs on tour. So I had these golf clubs, walking them down the sidewalk, in the Chelsea area of New York. I never thought I would have golf clubs in New York City.”
The epicenter of Alabama Shakes, which first erupted on the local Athens, Alabama scene in 2009, is without question Howard. Howard’s passionate vocals tap into her life story — the boredom of growing up in a small Southern town of 20,000, the death of her sister, divorce of her parents, and losing her family home in a fire.
Her powerful vocals are a hybrid of many influences ranging from Nina Simone, Prince, Bon Scott, and David Bowie, but the result is original and it is hers. She has, with her band, practically created a new genre of music, and their catchy, hypnotic melting pot of sounds and soul salvation has created a world of followers.
She can go from gritty, dashboard confessional to mesmerizing high-pitched yearnings. and sometimes she does both in the course of one song, such as “Gimme Me All Your Love.”
Fogg met Howard when his high school band was playing house parties and the younger Howard would sneak out of her parent’s trailer home to see him play. She would then form her own group with fellow classmate Cockrell and eventually Johnson before Fogg would jump ship and come aboard.
Los Angeles SiriusXM host Justin Gage found an online picture of Howard performing. Gage then posted an MP3 of the band’s studio track “You Ain’t Alone.”
Within a day, the band was being solicited by record label and management offers. One of those led to signing with New York Label ATO Records.
Cohesive is what the debut release Boys and Girls became, anchored by the autobiographical “Hold On,” which was recorded on a shoestring budget in Nashville.
“We do share a lot of interests too, but for me it would be classic rock, Rolling Stones,” Fogg says of the group's influences. “Zac would be R&B, and that could be classic R&B, Motown and Stax [Records], and Muscle Shoals. Steve is more of the hard rock, more similar to Tool, and bands like that. And that may be not be something you see in our music from the get-go, but it’s there.
“Brittany, she likes it all. She likes Nina Simone stuff. If you put all that together, you get a hot mess, but we’re always trying to make it cohesive.”
Fan and critic expectation of the follow-up Sound & Color was high to repeat this lightning-in-a-bottle hit, and yet, the band wanted to grow.
"And, so when we were touring for that album, and people would ask us ‘What are you working on, what can we expect?’ We tried to be really clear that we were not going to re-create Boys and Girls, and especially we weren’t going to recreate 'Hold On.'"
Along with creating an album it could take its time recording, the band recruited guitarist and producer Blake Mills to produce Sound & Color and to help bring some cohesiveness to the band's genre soup.
“All we wanted to do was to push ourselves creatively, and to try and come up with songs that were interesting to us. And, I think we all felt if we were passionate about the songs we wrote, we would be happy with whatever,” notes Fogg, who turns 32 next week.
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In fact on the title track, “Sound & Color,” the band through Howard’s quirky creative mind built an intro song that is spacey and replete with vibraphone echoes — an exploration of new sounds.
After the final leg of this 2016 tour, which takes them to Japan in December, band members will head back home, begin writing in the fall and winter for the next album, and rest.
It’s much needed,” Fogg says about going home. “I don’t see it as a step down at all. If anything, traveling the way we have, other than landscapes, there’s a lot of similarities between places, and I know all of my family and most of my friends are in Alabama, and that’s just where I need to be.”