Two and a half years ago, things were looking good for Alabama Shakes leader Brittany Howard. Her band's electrifying soul-rock single, "Hold On," had become a radio hit. Their debut album, "Boys & Girls," was on its way to gold sales status. And they'd been nominated for three Grammy Awards, including best new artist. Heady stuff, but Howard took it all in stride.
"Think about it," she said in a March 2013 interview in Music Alive! magazine. "Think about if someone was telling you, 'You're No. 1. You're No. 1.' The day you're not No. 1, how are you going to feel?"
Her question was rhetorical then, but now there's real reason to ask it. When Alabama Shakes' second album, "Sound & Color," came out in April, it entered the Billboard 200 chart at -- you guessed it: No. 1. So, five months later, how does Howard feel?
The not-so-surprising answer: pretty much the same as she did 21/2 years ago. OK, maybe a little happier.
"At first, it didn't really sink in," Howard says by phone from Nashville, where she's preparing to embark on a headlining tour that will bring Alabama Shakes to Forest Hills Stadium on Saturday. "It was just, 'Oh, that's cool.' It didn't sink in that maybe people liked the record and that's why it went to No. 1. Then my parents called me, super-excited, and then I was like, 'Oh, yeah, this is a good thing!' "
Howard points out that she and her bandmates (guitarist Heath Fogg, bassist Zac Cockrell, keyboardist Ben Tanner and drummer Steve Johnson) weren't aiming to top the charts.
"Our mindset was that it wouldn't be right to do this any other way than the way we want," she says. "It wasn't about hits."
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The music backs this up. Atmospheric, slowly developing songs like "Gemini" and the title track don't exactly scream commercial potential. But even the more rambling numbers have a focal point: Howard's astonishing voice, which is in its own gutsy way as dramatic as those of her idols David Bowie and Freddie Mercury. Her hair-raising falsetto parts on "Future People" are a case in point.
"That's a really in-your-face song," she says, "and now it's one of my favorites to play live. The fun part is wondering, 'Can I hit that first note?' If I hit it well, then I know everything else will be fine."
One other thing that sets Alabama Shakes apart is the emphasis the band puts on leaving space in their work. Even though "Sound & Color" adds plenty of elements to the band's basic sound -- including strings, vibraphone, and autoharp -- it always feels open, never cluttered.
"That's something I learned from a lot of my favorite singers," Howard says. "For example, in Al Green's 'Simply Beautiful,' there's hardly anything going on. There's just a great rhythm section and a great performance by Green. It doesn't need a lot. I hope that we can recognize when enough is enough."
Also on the Forest Hills bill is the Georgia alt-country quintet Drive-By Truckers, whose singer-guitarist Patterson Hood was a key cheerleader for Alabama Shakes early on. Given that Hood's belief in the band has now been borne out by a No. 1 album, touring with the Truckers must feel like a real celebration.
"I consider that band to be family," Howard says. "When we were coming up, we saw that they were from the South like us, but their message wasn't about driving big trucks and waving Confederate flags. And I was inspired by that. It was like, I can be who I am and come from where I'm from and be proud of it. It's my South."