by Polly Hember
The 9th of February marks the third Shakey Graves Day. Not many musicians have their own day dedicated to them, but after just one listen you can see why the Mayor of Austin proclaimed a tribute to the talented Texan troubadour. Alejandro Rose Garcia, the man behind Shakey Graves, draws on country, blues, folk and rock and roll to form a raw amalgamation of old-time folk storytelling that bleeds into alt-Americana, and is well worth the listen.
Spotlight Feature: Shakey Graves
Shakey started off in film and TV; living as an actor in New York and in LA, he appeared in Friday Night Lights, and secured some bit-parts in Material Girls and Spy Kids 3, among others. The explosive Antifolk scene was raging during this time in the two vibrant cities, which sees punk and folk collide chaotically in a tradition that prizes song-writing and charisma over polished technique. After immersing himself in this sound, he took the freak-folk twang back to Austin’s classic country community. His music reflects the amorphous melding of such vibrant musical scenes from such varied cities and traditions; his debut album with Dualtone records holds heavy distorted guitar notes, caught in a sonic tug of war between folk and rock, propelled forwards by his creative storytelling.
Each song has multiple versions; his albums, especially his latest And Then the War Came, may fall short as they can only present one crystallised, immortalised interpretation of each song. Rather disappointingly, recorded tracks often have a closed, sombre, muted cap on them. They lack the gloriously unabashed foot-stomping, jaunty country energy of Shakey’s dynamic live performances which seems evasively difficult to capture or indeed define. Many high-quality live performances can be found on YouTube (I would recommend any of the KEXP versions), and further displays the dynamism of Shakey Graves.
Some songs see Shakey an acoustic, solo one-man entity, softly singing alongside tender folky finger-picking guitar riffs and the beat of his homemade suitcase kick-drum. Different versions of the same song see him as an electric, bluesy rock band of three or four – his voice now gruff and competing to be heard over heavy distortion and a full drum set. Clever and subtle changes in tempo, tone and harmonies make this variation possible and contribute a fresh, raw vitality to the ongoing folk revival. The ongoing evolution of his music harks back to the mutable origins of oral folk, shifting and changing with each performance. His live performances remain unmoored to any one definitive version and exist in multiple forms; free to grow, shift and change along with the evolution of an artist who is constantly flirting with folk, blues and rock, between a solo act and a more ambitious electric band.
His most popular song ‘Dearly Departed’ highlights this musical evanescence; the song relays a ghoulish comedy sketch about a failed relationship. Some versions see co-writer Esme Patterson clapping, jumping and smiling as they sing in jaunty harmony together, bursting with unharnessed energy as they clap their hands, stomp their feet and laugh at Rose-Garcia’s fake Transylvanian accent and delight in the wordplay around fangs, crystal ball and ghouls. However, solo versions render the song painful, transporting it somewhere else completely. The energetic and frantic rhythm is slowed to the melancholy plod of his kick-drum, high-pitched harmonic notes have become dark moans and soft sighs of a ghostly shadow of a man, coming to terms with the haunted feeling of an eerily empty bed and broken heart. (Click on the videos below to see for yourself!)
After supporting the likes of Shovels and Rope, The Devil Makes Three and City and Colour on national tours, Shakey Graves is coming to the UK in April on his own tour. If the live recordings are anything to go on, this will do doubt deliver bursting, energetic and raw lo-fi folk and a unique glimpse into where he is on his musical evolution. If you can’t wait till April, head over to his Bandcamp where he is celebrating his third Shakey Graves Day by allowing all of his music to be downloaded for free. Offering rare gems from his back catalogue, the unreleased albums The State of Texas vs. Alejandro Rose-Garcia, Story of my Life, As Per Request, West of Calgary and Nobody’s Fool. This musical celebration is set to go on for three days, after which these songs will turn back into pumpkins until next year, lost into the night as we clutch at mesmerising glass-slipper fragments of a long and varied career that stretches from tentative, early bedroom-pop to fully accomplished electro-country.
Happy Shakey Graves Day!
Listen to any of his lyrics carefully and you will find sad stories about gold diggers, murderers awaiting the death penalty, remorse, reconciliation and travels. Carefully crafted and accompanied by sometimes delicate guitar-picking or bold and other times heavy electric distortion, Shakey’s sound shifts and changes.