Alabama Shakes: Saturday afternoon, Fort Stage

The first act I caught at this year's fest were Alabama Shakes, a band I'd been looking forward to seeing for two days. My initial attraction to the band had little to do with their songs. In the days leading up to this weekend's festival, I was skeptical of its roster, which (as mentioned earlier) is super white, super male. In search of something less typical, I printed up the festival's schedule grid, grabbed a pen, and one by one looked up each act on the Newport sched, outlining the race and gender of every band. For Day 1 of the fest, Alabama Shakes surfaced as my only chance to catch a female and a person of color on stage at once, so I figured I'd give them a chance.

>> SLIDESHOW: Newport Folk Festival 2012 by Ryan McMahon <<

Before this experiment, I knew little about Alabama Shakes other than that they've grown widely popular in a very quick span of time. And at Newport, their impressive set of blues-inspired old-school rock was made even more impressive by their front-lady Brittany Howard's powerhouse voice, providing an explanation for their fast ascent. "Do you know how hard it is for me to talk to other boys?," Howard belted out on a classic lovesick ballad, one brand new jam the band brought to Newport. "I have no choice other than to love you."

The most memorable songs came late in the set ("We're gonna rock and roll now," Howard said halfway through), with a string of higher-energy rootsy songs, more rock than roll, songs that had folks singing out loud, doing the twist, clapping along in double time. On the band's second-to-last song, "You Ain't Alone," Howard was particularly emotive. She pointed and pouted and punched on the last verse, her mouth wide open, belting it out: "You/You ain't alone/Just let me be/Your ticket home."

Last July, when her band (who called themselves "the Shakes" back then) sent an MP3 of that track to popular music blog Aquarium Drunkard, they never could have predicted that within one year, they'd be playing the song to a Newport Folk Festival crowd screaming the lyrics back at them. "Y'all sound beautiful," Howard told them.

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