You see it register in her feet first, the groove.
Right then left, right then left, each heel rises as if Shanda Cisneros is squishing bugs to the beat.
Soon enough, her hands and hips join the party, the former flared out, her palms becoming stop signs, the latter swishing to and fro as the rhythm builds.
The garage is hot and quickly growing hotter as Shanda & the Howlers get to work on a Thursday evening.
Bassist Luke Metz moved to his new eastside home recently, and so the band’s rehearsal spot is still largely unadorned, its walls decorated by a lone picture of a shaggy Tom Waits, back when he was looking like the Wolfman’s stunt double.
After drummer Keith Alcantara gets this session started, saxophonist Micah Lapping-Carr rips a lead that reverberates through the room. Six-stringer Trevor Johnson adds funky stabs of guitar, while Cisneros brings it all home on the mic, her voice collapsing blues, soul and R&B into a singular expression of feminine guile and vigor.
“Singing songs in the soul genre is really tough,” Metz notes before practice, hanging with his bandmates next to a vintage jukebox loaded with ? and the Mysterians, Elvis and Stiff Little Fingers jams. “I think it’s gotta go directly from your heart and right out through your voice. You can’t stop and think about it too much; it can’t go to the brain too much.”
In other words you’ve got to feel it, and Cisneros certainly does, palpably. She’s the focal point of Shanda & the Howlers’ new record, “Trouble,” the band’s first. It’s an album rooted in vintage sounds — think LaVern Baker, Howlin’ Wolf, Stax Records — but it never feels nostalgic. Too often, bands that explicitly mine the past can feel like a study in form, elevating style above substance.
What makes this bunch stand out is they internalize their influences and then create something fresh from familiar sources.
It begins with Cisernos, who’s an assertive, no-nonsense presence on “Trouble.” “Don’t call me babe. Don’t call me buttercup,” she warns during the punchy swing of “Mind Made Up.” “I’m not your little plaything, you can count on that,” she thunders on “Don’t Need Your Love.” “I’ll never be your puppet on a string.”
This is an album of strong songs populated by female protagonists who are stronger still.
“I think more women should have the voice of confidence,” Cisneros explains, arms and shoulders brightened by floral tattoos.
Cisneros began getting in touch with her voice at 15 years old, when her brother gave her an Ella Fitzgerald cassette.
“That changed my life forever,” she says. “I wanted to be her for the longest time until I found out that I had more of an Etta James-type growl. That’s when I really got into the blues.”
Cisneros has fronted other acts, but this is the first time she’s singing original material.
Songs from “Trouble,” which was put out by Boston indie Rum Bar Records, have been played on “Little Steven’s Underground Garage” show on satellite radio, and the band has gotten positive reviews nationally and abroad in countries like Spain and England.
“We just sold a CD in France and sent that out,” Cisneros grins. “I was elated going to the post office, ‘I have to send this to Paris.’ ”
The band gigs steadily, playing upward of six sets a night on some occasions. They’re the rare act equally capable of going over with the rockabilly faithful at Viva Las Vegas, where they’ve turned in well-received performances, as well as, say, a punk crowd in Flagstaff, Arizona. (“They were moshing to us,” Alcantara notes).
Johnson breaks down the band’s appeal succinctly: “Drinkin’ and dancin,’ ” he says.
Back in the garage, the group works on a new tune, Cisneros reading her handwritten lyrics as she sings.
She’s found her voice.
It fills the room.
“In every project I had been in before, it was a cover band. This was our material and it felt very personal,” she explained earlier in the evening. “It was very empowering for me. I wasn’t very comfortable being powerful. These guys made sure I was.”
Contact Jason Bracelin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0476. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter.