Monday, 9 February 2015

Shakey Graves: 'Are you trick or are you treat?'*

alejandro rose-garcia aka shakey graves
* From 'City in a Bottle'. Links to songs in the titles. For tenuous Kinks connection, see end.

Happy Shakey Graves Day!
Thought I would post this to celebrate.

Random, arbitrary, magical – how we hear new music these days
A musical segment on the TV series Third Watch showcased a distinctive tune and I thought, finally some good new music. However, investigations led to the revelation that this great new band was an old favourite, no other than Fleetwood Mac; the song was ‘Peacekeeper’. You didn’t know it was me who discovered the Mac, did you? Remind anyone just a little of Paul Simon's ‘Kodachrome’?

I first heard Citizen Cope on a trailer for a TV show that I never watched: Sons of Anarchy. Of course it was difficult to find out more about the singer and the song without knowing his name or the title but anything is possible with YouTube and Google so tried various lines from the short snippet I had heard until I identified the song as ‘Son’s Gonna Rise’. Now one album and two gigs later ...

On the plane, watched Boyhood and found myself humming an exquisitely pretty song from it all the way home so tried to remember one line of the lyric so that I could search for it online: ‘Hero’ by Family of the Year. Every time I hear this song, it cheers me up so I wouldn't be without it.

Was there life before YouTube? And why?
I’m not particularly techno-savvy. I haven’t even progressed to being able to download anything and don’t really understand people who go for long country walks while glued to their iPods. Don’t you want to hear the birds, the wind, someone yelling at you that you’re trespassing? But even someone as digitally retarded as me can cope with YouTube and I use it to check out new music although eventually I like to own a physical artefact, something to hold, like a CD/DVD. 

So how did I stumble into Shakey Graves?
I watched a movie and it was complete nonsense (Nora Roberts histrionics) but there was this totally sweet-looking guy in it, outshining the rest of the cast in a cameo as the evil brother. Read my review here. The film was Midnight Bayou. The actor’s name was Alejandro Rose-Garcia.

gotta love someone who looks like this ...
Early Graves
I was curious – he didn’t seem to have been in many movies so I checked him out on YouTube; thought this was really cute, ‘Ali, Ali, Julie, Julie’. I realised he had this alter ego or other title: Shakey Graves. I tried to listen to several tracks (emphasis on ‘tried’) but didn’t get it. Some of it was live and occasionally seemed like self-indulgent caterwauling, some supremely lo-fi, soft and understated, that left little impression on me but even though I’m not someone who usually has the patience to acquire a taste, I kept listening (I'd say partly because he’s not exactly hard to look at, but in fact most tracks I liked only had a pic of the CD cover from Roll the Bones. I wasn't ready for Shakey live).

... but uses this on his cd sleeve
These songs were like shy children (and I’ve always had a soft spot for shy children), standing behind me, tugging at my skirt, politely asking for attention, particularly ‘Built to Roam’, with the chorus quietly but increasingly insistently reiterating till it’s almost a threat: ‘Watch out/Cause here I come bored and lazy/Here I come no dignity/So long, sad city of angels/ You ain’t been very good to me’, this compounded with a laden pause (for effect) before the second instance – Shakey really knows how to emphasise a stanza or line with a breath beforehand or a sigh after. Subtly, slowly, they infiltrated my consciousness. They clung to me like teasels, attached themselves via static. I brushed them off but they would regroup and reconnect and so they insidiously crept up on me, spun gossamer strands around me, saved me till later.

some strange enchantment
I was beguiled by the girl-nextdoor prettiness of ‘To Cure What Ails’ (fantastic title, lyrics: ‘I think I’ve grown a little thinner/Without you riding my coat tails/I would trade it all again/For a nice stroll in your skin/Just to cure what ails’), the lilting loveliness of ‘Word of Mouth’ (‘When anybody tries to tell him what to do/He holds his breath until he turns blue’) and the sunny plaint of ‘Proper Fence’ (‘Well she said kiss me/And lord I listened’).

To begin with, they seemed like shadows of songs, sort of ethereal. I thought them insubstantial but gradually they began to exercise some strange enchantment on me. The plucking and finger-picking created delicate melodies, intricate patterns, falling like summer rain on ‘Business Lunch’ and ‘Roll the Bones’ (upbeat tune with downbeat message, a spoonful of sugar as Julie Andrews might put it: ‘Yeah so struggle all you like/Yeah put up the good fight/They say some day everybody dies alone’) or generating shades as subtle as a hand-coloured postcard on ‘Bully’s Lament’, sometimes with weirdly distorted vocals, often overlaid with syncopated handclaps, background vocals a nanosecond or so behind the lead.

The lyrics were intriguing, clever, full of allusions and mystery, and new ways of expressing interesting ideas. Take ‘Unlucky Skin’ (favourite line: ‘No monetary value(s) have I’; me neither), ‘Stereotypes of a Blue Collar Male’ (‘Church and stuff church and stuff/I never thought God would call my bluff/But he did/Yes he did/Yes he goddamn did’) or the rowdy live version of ‘City in a Bottle’: ‘If she was six teeth younger and I had half a mind/You know I'd carry her away from that wicked thing outside’. ‘Six teeth younger’! I love it. Atmospheric, sultry horns seem to stagger drunkenly through what is surely the seediest, sleaziest, sexiest swing tune since ‘Mack the Knife’ (Bobby Darin – accept no subsitute).

boy from the backwoods
I can only compare them to those Magic Eye pictures where you have to alter your focus in order to see something in the image, which isn’t immediately apparent, perhaps a completely different picture. But with Shakey, once you’ve altered your focus, you remain in this altered state, you can't go back and you wouldn’t want to. You can't unsee it. Or rather unhear it. It’s always magical to you.

Some songs were on the Roll the Bones album or The Donor Blues ep (only available via download on Shakey Graves Day) but many only exist on YouTube. Waiting for a recording of 'Bully's Lament' (unbelievable right?), ‘Once in a While’, ‘Where a Boy Once Stood’, ‘Word of Mouth’, ‘Late July’ (didn’t even rate this till I heard an astounding live version in Louisville), ‘Tomorrow’, ‘Parliament’ (SG as backwoods boy/hillbilly hobo), ‘Coat of Arms’ (‘When is the last day of school/Today is the first day of class’). I've made a list if anyone's interested ...

 boo and shakey
Vampire slayers
The new songs were a different proposition. Bolder, brasher, bolshier cousins to the earlier ones. They didn’t tap tentatively at the door; they high-kicked it down like vampire slayers. However, I was initially put off by a frantic, scary version of ‘Dearly Departed’, with Esmé Patterson that everyone else loved. I still prefer it when he does this alone or with Boo (Chris Boosahda) and she’s not there (inadvertently continuing the undead theme with this Zombies classic). I love the way Shakey and Boo whip each other up into a frenzy, into a perfect pitch of intensity. Boo adds a certain something to the Shakey experience until ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts'. Compare the 2013 Pickathon version of ‘Where a Boy Once Stood’ (admittedly a different time, place, audience) with this from Stetson Center Stage 2014.

I think it was ‘Hardwired’ (which is on the new CD And the War Came) that did it for me. That was a song and a half. My reservations fell away. This is my favourite version – he doesn’t alter the tempo too much and the song retains its momentum more.
‘Well water was wine/Back on blue mountain time/While I watched your lovin' expire/While I lay close to you/As the lace on the shoe/And that's when I knew/We were hardwired’. The English grad in me loved the interline rhyme of ‘lay close to you’/‘lace on the shoe’. I might be wrong but I think originally the lyrics were: ‘Well I bumbled like bees/While you boiled like the seas’ but now he mostly sings ‘Well you bumbled like bees/And I boiled like the seas’ and he’s altered ‘But you are as you came/Mostly bliss and cocaine/A match just beggin' for fire’ to ‘But you are as you came/Mostly bliss and cocaine/Just a match beggin' for fire’ but I prefer the first version – it not only scans better but alters the stress too, making the girl (we assume it’s a girl) sound even more combustible. Like she can't wait. And the melody was instantly memorable; the backing reminiscent of early Hall and Oates – never a bad thing ('I'll Be By', for instance).

wild card
Next I was mesmerised by the stunning ‘Wild Card’ here from Stetson Centre Stage.Like I say when Christian Kane sings 'Rattlesnake Smile': it should be illegal for anyone to sound this sexy. This epitomises the Shakey/Boo dynamic: organic, symbiotic. The guitar and drum kick straight to my heart. ‘The Perfect Parts’ I wasn’t enamoured of to begin with, thinking it too rocky but now I'm particularly partial to the rowdy version. The way he delivers the line ‘Well I used to take my women on the rocks’ sends a thrill through me. And I love the image ‘The city’s put me through the wash’. Definitely felt like that. 'House of Winston' is irresistible, with sparkling, iridescent guitar work, coupled with the adorable line ‘I wanna waste your time’.

His lyrics are a mischievous mix of humorous and profound. ‘The Pansy Waltz’ always makes me smile: ‘Well I dusted all the bones out in my yard/I fixed the screen door, raised the barn/But still you call me from the moon/Every single afternoon/Tell me all about the astronauts you've come to love/And how the earth looks from above/And how I should've been a better friend to you’. Again, the natural connection between the musicians, their obvious joy in performing together (although illicit substances might be playing a part here) all add to the appeal.

‘It’s sort of a rediscovery on stage. I’ll write a song … you get thrown in a room with a bunch of people, I like to change it.’

the diumvirate
The live versions were always totally different to the studio tracks and I found this offputting at first. I thought he changed the nature (or what I perceived to be the nature) of the songs too much, slowing to a crawl when I thought he should be in the fast lane, yelling when I anticipated a whisper. It felt like he was constantly dismantling them, rearranging them and I didn’t understand why. There are still some I can't listen to. But I mainly heard the newer songs live first and found, with the exception of ‘Only Son’, one of those songs like 'Where a Boy Once Stood’  or ‘Wild Card’ on which he effortlessly ratchets from sublime and tender in the verse to a regular maelstrom in the chorus (Shakey the storm and the calm at the eye of the storm at the same time) – a satisfying contrast, although this live performance from Lagunitas showcases the Shakey/Boo diumvirate (ok, I admit I made that word up); they play as if they were two strands of the same cloth, interwoven to create an elaborate tapestry.

a man possessed
But now I see that a song is not an object set in stone that has to be reproduced as perfectly or accurately as the track on the record.  Grant Hart often alters lyrics for different situations. With Shakey Graves, everything could change; the song is a living thing, endlessly manipulable, and he can play it whichever way he wants, depending on his mood or maybe the mood of an audience. With his crazy musical skills and vocal range and power, he sees limitless possibilities so opts to explore them. He can pare them down or fill them out, purr or roar.

So sometimes the songs are like old friends in different clothes or they appear to be complete strangers who strike you suddenly as a little familiar, just a frisson of déjà vu. There's maybe one mannerism you recall. He continually confounds expectations. It doesn’t always work but it ensures each gig is an exciting experience with songs that sometimes sound brand new.

And I could never doubt his fervour as he howls till the veins cord in his neck, his face reddens and sweat streams, he sings like a man possessed, could never doubt his absolute commitment to performing them with utter focus and intensity. See this ‘Dearly Departed’ for instance or this electrifying, impossibly sexy rendition of ‘Call It Heaven’ from Telluride.

So anyway, I’m hoping that Shakey will come to the UK this year since we travelled all the way to the US last year (having not had a vacation for three years) to try to catch him live two nights in a row but the first attempt was a disaster. Even though we had bought tickets in advance and won tickets in a competition for the same show (what are the odds? didn’t find this out till we got back home), we weren’t allowed in at the Mercy Lounge in Nashville because my sister failed to bring any ID. I had my passport and we’re twins but there was no budging the management and the draconian laws of Tennessee. Did get to see him at the Mercury Ballroom in Louisville and the gig was incendiary but made us even sadder we’d missed him the first night. So just one UK gig please?

'I can be the city boy that I make fun of and I can also be the country boy that will get dip on you.'
Trick or treat, I don’t care. Just get over here.

A poem about Shakey’s version of  ‘I’m on Fire’ (akin to being serenaded by the devil) is here and another fan's perspective on Shakey is here.

Anyone searching for a Kinks connection, there is one. Shakey and some renegades sing a version of 'Dead-End Street' here. You know, given the title of the blog, I should always add one.

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