I used to be conflicted about Shakey Graves. I was one of those people not paying attention. There was a time not that long ago when I’d watch a fraction of one of his performances on YouTube and regretfully reflect ‘So cute but what an awful racket’ before switching to something else.
Now I like to think I’ve seen the light and am more inclined to consider the Austin musician a total genius, even a truly original talent. Or perhaps he’s worked some nefarious voodoo magic on me through the ether? Enabling me to appreciate more than his range of nifty headgear.
Certain numbers are still admittedly an acquired taste, not to be advocated to the dilettante (I still class ‘willow garden’, ‘late july’, ‘daisy chains’, perhaps ‘dusty lion’ in this category) but pay dividends for the more hardcore enthusiast after a few listens.
Indeed, some of the tracks I used to find unbearable I now find myself playing over and over. I learnt the lesson that sometimes it’s better to just listen, without the distraction of visuals. When I listened to the ‘original’ tracks from roll the bones, it sparked an instant infatuation; and it allowed me to appreciate the live versions spun off from them so much better.
Early favourites were ‘to cure what ails’, ‘chinatown’, ‘once in a while’ and ‘halloween’. But pretty soon I expanded my playlist to include multiple others. The guy is nothing if not prolific, turning out exquisitely crafted songs at an impressive rate. Where do all these lilting melodies and bewitching licks come from? I can now safely recommend a bevy of outstanding tunes from the Graves canon.
I find it hard to categorise his music, maybe because I’m British, but that seems to me a positive thing. Indie-folk, alt-folk, anti-folk, roots-rock, country-blues, alt-Americana, hobo-bluegrass, other random compound adjectives. Who cares what you call it when it sounds this good?
The version of ‘city in a bottle’ with horns from the roll the bones album just makes you want to jump up, dance and sing and celebrate life. In fact, that whole album is a tour de force reminding me how inspirational and mind-altering music can be. When I’d just about given up on listening to new stuff in favour of artists from the past I’d shamefully only recently discovered, like the magnificent Gene Clark.
Every now and then a song sounds like Jason Walton might have performed it at the Dew Drop Inn in the 1930s/70s; and yet at the same time completely contemporary.
Must-hear-every-day song at the moment is the intense and heartfelt ballad ‘hardwired’ from the new album and the war came. But it might be about to be superseded by the compelling, atmospheric and yet still so much fun ‘wild card’, performed here at Stetson Center Stage, with the multi-talented Chris Boosahda.
I’m no muso but I’ve learnt that Shakey (given name Alejandro Rose-Garcia) uses two different guitar tunings. And I read a book that talked a lot about Joni Mitchell’s penchant for her own unique tunings. I gather that it’s not a commonplace in the business but perhaps more associated with an individualistic approach unfettered by convention, so ideally suited to a more idiosyncratic perspective.
Because the Graves catalogue also features quirkily poetic and charmingly conversational lyrics referencing drugs, a lot of stuff I frankly don’t understand, extolling the virtues of driving under the influence, passing on life lessons, travelogues, fantasy, imagined tragic blues scenarios, sex; lyrics that are never anything but thought-provoking, displaying a gift for observation, humour and turn of phrase:
You can hang my foreskin from the rafters
What’s a dagger without a cloak?
Seems like I don’t get to wear my bare feet at all
If I lived in a white home you could see the coffee rings on everything
I’ve become a cold case
Bruised and black
Laying on a table with my eyes rolled back
A husband for dear Doe, Jane
Some are drawn from real-life, as he recounts a NY encounter with a hooker (going by the evocatively suggestive moniker of Quick [or maybe Kwik] Monique the Freak) on public transport while his boots languished in a state of disrepair (‘city in a bottle’).
Or recalls his delighted discovery of indecently young moonshine brashly boasting of its immaturity: ‘the first time I ever went to New York City and we had pulled over to get some booze in a liquor store’. They found this commercial moonshine with the irresistible slogan ‘less than 30 days old!’.
We just got such a kick out of it that we decided to write a fake country song while we were driving to keep ourselves entertained.
This later developed into ‘georgia moon’, ‘a love song to moonshine and drunk-driving’.
Maybe it’s just as well he didn’t play this one at his high school showcase (discussed later), with its rather dubious logic that the ideal antidote for fatigue and adverse weather conditions while driving is adding alcohol to the mix. Not sure what Judge Judy would have to say about that but I’m pretty sure her honour wouldn’t approve. But I think she’d agree it’s a beautiful song, even if she might not applaud the sentiment, more likely to appeal to the schoolkids, not to mention other folks bent on a good time.
Doing 85 going north on 81
Won’t see my baby till the rising of the sun
Tennessee keeps warnin’ me if I booze it I might lose it
But shine on Georgia moon
Yeah well it’s hard to see the road
Through this rain and all the fog
Well this Appalachian driving has me tired as a dog
But this mason full of moonshine, is gonna keep me mighty strong
So shine on Georgia moon
So no wonder Graves has amassed a legion of fans and is in constant demand on the festival scene with sell-out gigs all over the shop. Not to mention an appearance on Conan to his credit.
But naturally this success, which has been a short time coming, arrives bound up with the burden of expectation, which this artist seems acutely aware of:
‘It gets a little stressful – just having people’s expectations is always something that’s sort of dreadful, I suppose.’
He has been honing his craft, both in songwriting and performance, conceding in interview that in earlier days he’d anticipated more immediate recognition before realising he hadn’t actually put in enough work. It’s telling of his character that he was initially arrogant enough to expect everything to come dead easy; and then honest, mature and self-aware enough to acknowledge his misplaced certainty.
‘I wasn’t able to consistently convey what it is I do to people in a live space, where it would be spotty and I’d have a lot of excuses like [adopts slightly aggressive and aggrieved tone] “Well, you should listen to the recording’ or whatever, you know.”’
Well, the sinuous hipped one can certainly consistently deliver live now. He is never less than captivating as a performer, lithe and animated. Sometimes he mumbles or hums his way shyly into the melodies of his songs. He tells stories and jokes of dubious quality, engages easily with the crowd, welcomes special guests (the fiddler at Louisville was my favourite), is all awestruck, humble and gratified to provoke such a wildly enthusiastic reception, yelping delightedly: ‘Thank y’all for comin’ out!’
He’s been feted for offering different versions of his songs live so that each show is essentially new. I know how tedious it can be when you see someone replicate the same set, same versions, same segues, introductions, jokes at successive gigs so that they all seem interchangeable.
And I can imagine this can get boring for the artist too especially one who plays as regularly as Shakey does. So I’m prepared for some rambunctious roustabout to become a maudlin introspection and vice versa. And for almost anything to happen.
In this interview with the less-than-ideal role model, some high school students listen to a song about sex and amphetamines, ‘tomorrow’, and ask a po-faced question about identity and composition and Shakey just runs with it till they run out of tape. He has said elsewhere: ‘I like to sit down and really stew in it.’
This lot are studying Jean-Luc Godard so is it any wonder they come over un peu pretentious? One quotes Godard’s assertion that there is ‘clear continuity between all forms of expression’, before asking ‘What continuity do you see between your music and your acting?’
Rose-Garcia gamely takes this on, discoursing at length in a considered manner the nature of said continuities but the gist of his response is that there are ‘tons’.
Something else to his credit is his fealty to his home town: ‘I made a conscious decision to try and work in Austin’. This would seem to have paid off in spades with the town choosing to celebrate an annual Shakey Graves Day in honour of its illustrious son.
He talks of the delights of recording an album at home too:
It’s fun to walk into an actual studio but it’s also really great to like not take your bathrobe off all day long and be up at 3.30 in the morning with your friends … I am so happy that my house is a recording studio.
Songs to check out if you haven’t already, include, in no particular order –
wild card, hardwired, to cure what ails, parliament, good police, chinatown, once in a while, halloween, georgia moon, donor blues, passionate kisses, lonely hill, city in a bottle, christopher columbus, family tree, proper fence, bully’s lament, tomorrow, doe, jane, word of mouth, built to roam, dearly departed, business lunch, rotten ol’ me, coat of arms, only son, pansy waltz, call it heaven, house of winston as well as covers like i’m on fire, dead end street, lovefool, somebody to love …
One thing continues to baffle me – how come someone whose fingernails look a little on the grubby side and who works up such a healthy sweat manages to keep his white vests so pristine? Mine would be a disgrace.
And I have to report (not without a certain slightly disgruntled chopped-liveredness) that this blog by one of my close relations got the following Shakey seal of approval – ‘you tell your sister that she wrote probably the most in depth analysis of my sonic intention that I’ve ever seen’.
 Perhaps in retrospect a few of the clips did display that hint of self-indulgence that often creeps in when someone’s absurdly gifted. When I listened to the recorded versions of many of these songs, I was able to reevaluate and appreciate them.
 I managed to buy two albums at a recent gig but wish he would release a lot of his other material in a physical format.
 Okay, I made that one up.
 Although this becomes a more light-hearted honky tonk lament at live shows.
 So much not a muso that I had to rely on my elder half-brother to tune my guitar for me. And he didn’t visit all that often.
 Sorry, my brain went all polysyllabic on me for some reason.
 I’ve grown out of that now myself.
 I’ve recently renounced good times after my traumatic American experience and would settle for a good night’s sleep without having to take a couple handfuls of drugs, washed down with anything that might possibly amplify their effect.
 Much as I love Ray Davies, every show on the last tour was basically the same.
 Well, I’m being a little facetious. I guess it’s more about not wanting to plan for the future. I never did either so let that be a lesson to you.
Images from Facebook, YouTube and Austin Chronicle. Quotes from various interviews.