Gig review: Shakey Graves @ Birmingham 02 Institute 26/4/16

by Polly Hember


Shakey Graves (Alejandro Rose Garcia) has been on the alt-Americana and folk revival scene for quite some time now. His beautifully crafted songs, pensive lyrics and intricate guitar finger-picking have made for some breath-taking performances that have been captured on various live albums and YouTube videos, building up a reputation for phenomenal live performances especially on the festival circuit. However, dreams did not quite manage to match up with reality as Shakey Graves took on the Birmingham o2 Institute.

The alt-country outfit Shakey Graves has grown over the years from Garcia’s early freak-folk days, expanding to encompass drummers and guitarists to accommodate a more complex, electrical sound. However Garcia appeared solo in Birmingham without support from his touring band, performing with just a kick-drum (fashioned out of an old suitcase), a few guitars and a synth board, he attempted to channel the same electric energy of a larger band. In this solo circumstance, perhaps a return to his traditional folk singer-songwriter days would have been more fitting, with more emphasis on songs and less on distortion. Garcia relied heavily on static and reverb, often leaving elongated periods of guitar twangs and synth both in-between and during songs. These were in danger of carrying on slightly too long to contribute to the musical soundscape and instead verged on headache inducing impatience. 

Perhaps accompanied by a larger band, this static space would lend itself to the complexity of the composition and build up the anticipation, but in Birmingham it worked only to open the set up to a vacant and self-indulgent emptiness working clumsily against the beautifully crafted lyrics and delicate guitar work of the songs.

Shakey Graves’s songs are notoriously poetic and poignant. However, any tenderness found in live or studio recordings was not apparent in this performance.  Instead of intimate and poetic, it had the feel of a bar gig as he relied heavily on audience participation, odd chatty detours and gaudy banter about whistling audience members. Garcia paused mid-song to shout out something to the back of a bemused crowd, jumping off-stage at one point to continue this monopolising interaction. Whilst this speaks positively of Garcia’s confident, relaxed and jokey on-stage energy, this interrupted the flow of the songs crucially. Again, perhaps a bigger band would have supported this scatty banter, but this uncontained energy did not translate smoothly to the majority of the confused audience.

Whilst these odd detours distracted from the songs, there was still plenty of enjoyable moments – of course the crowd favourite was left till the end, ‘Dearly Departed’ had everyone singing along to the catchy chorus, and ‘Late July’ and ‘Hardwired’ were the highlights of the set. With a prolific song writing skill, Shakey Graves has an extensive back catalogue. Sadly the set list did not seem to utilise the diverse wealth of songs and seemed oddly weighted, with a lull of slow, obscure songs such as ‘China Town’ and ‘Georgia Moon’ in the middle. The aforementioned ‘Dearly Departed’ ignited the audience’s attention once more, finishing the set on a high with an enthusiastic encore of ‘Roll the Bones’.

All in all, Garcia provided a relaxed night listening to rather his “shakey” musings and music. He was able to confidently interact with an audience and showcased undeniable skill and talent, but not enough emphasis fell on the musicality. 

The delicately crafted songs that promised evocative apotheosis were lost in between the static and synth of electric guitar reverb and Garcia’s laddish remarks. However, this did not eclipse a singer whose natural talent carried the casual gig through (just about).

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