Imagine a world where fame and money doesn’t bring friends, nor happiness or freedom. Where loved ones come and go without specially announcing their intrinsic value or difference from the others, leaving you to have to sort through the good from bad. A place where neighbours are suspicious, where the author, a troubadour, knows better but also has to accept blame. This is the world of Austin native, sometimes front man, sometimes one man band, Alejandro Rose-Garcia.
Now, take a DIY suitcase-turned kick drum and tambourine. Give Rose-Garcia his guitar. Don’t worry, he will cover both lead and rhythm roles with clean acoustic plucking, sometimes opting for a distortion pedal for open chords. He will use weird and wonderful effects with pedals and string bends, always striving to create a sound to support his poetry. And just when you feel comfortable to typecast him, he will bring in a harp or accordion, or damn it, he will bring in a whole support band and morph into lyrical psychedelic sounds, reminiscent of experimental Beatles. This is when Rose-Garcia becomes Shakey Graves.
Putting together ten essential tracks for such an eclectic artist is no easy feat. Spanning albums from 2011 to 2018, the songs listed will not only enlighten you as to why Shakey Graves has been billed on two days at Bluesfest this year, but also serve as a sampler for his experimental, highly individualised world of sound.
Let’s dive in.
1.Roll the Bones, Audiotree Live Sessions (2013)
Originally from his debut 2011 album with the same title as the track, the album version is harmonised and has a lengthy intro with a double tracked guitar. It also has a folky sound to it with much of the rhythm coming from guitar rather than percussion. Whereas the Audiotree solo session, complete with one man band kick drum is has attracted most of the recent attention, it’s worth listening to both versions. The lyrics encourage us to “Roll the bones” i.e., take a gamble; don’t simply conform to social moulds. Be yourself. Let go of the past and get on with the future.
2. City In A Bottle, Roll The Bones (2011)
This is the only live performance on the album. Rhythmic strumming and improvisatory horn entries bring a jive about that jumps into an infectious chorus with an accordion that hints at its more integral use later in the song; there’s a gypsy fiesta feel about in this one. Lyrics like, “When your pockets fill With dollar bills, your heart forgets to eat,” sculpted into melodies that have you singing along.
3. Dining Alone, Can’t Wake Up (2018)
Garcia offered a completely new sound on his recent album. Production-wise, it’s much more elaborate than past albums. Perfectly harmonised vocals with the sound of an entire backing band, tuneful whistling and poetic guitar riffs, this track is strongly reminiscent of the Beatles. Psychedelic pedal effects put a sense of strangeness in the music. Shakey Graves wonders why the same old person does the same old thing day in and day out. He looks at what it would be like to have a more exciting life, but always opts for the safer route and then distortion guitar kicks in for the chorus outlining frustration of a life lived with such apathy.
4. My Neighbor, Can’t Wake Up (2018)
‘My Neighbor’ is a song inspired by the idea that everyone wanting to live in their own “bubble dome”, as Shakey Graves calls it. He admits, he too can be scared of things unfamiliar to him. “Only reason you’re afraid, there’s no face. There’s no man behind the name. I’ve started to believe my neighbor, we’re the same.” The production has a pop feel and even an electro ’90s industrial snare drum sound. His voice has been layered with the louder vocal chorused and underneath, a deeper voice that breaths some gravity into the lyrics. The chorus is made up of la’s and na’s and doesn’t hide Shakey’s views of his neighbour as being uninformed and ridiculous. This isn’t his most played song, but a good example of his recent foray into a new musical direction.
5. Dearly Departed, And The War Came (2015)
Sung as a duet with Denver singer/songwriter Esmé Patterson, ‘Dearly Departed’ starts with a drum and clapping rhythm made for clapping along to. Enter both singers with perfectly harmonised oohs and straight into the chorus: “You and I both know that the house is haunted. And you and I both know that the ghost is me.” ‘Dearly Departed’ is a song about relationships, how they can sour and where the responsibility lies. Not unlike a Dolly Parton duet, this one is for singing along to.
6. Tomorrow (2016)
Back to the one man band sound, but without a hint of percussion or distortion until the end of the third verse. “Well, you love this heart and this six string, girl, oh but they’ve been outta tune yeah for some time.” It’s a story most can relate to. Troubled by his past, Shakey Graves talks about being thrown around by some bad girls in a previous life. For him, finding a good one is a new experience. Shakey almost mumbles the first verse in storytelling tone, before lashing out into high range and falsettos. His talent undeniable with the development of a more husky resonance in each verse as the story unfolds until a climactic finish: “I could never say, baby, tomorrow oh, I’ll be right there, I’ma be your man.”
7. Seeing All Red, Shakey Graves And The Horse He Rode In On (2017)
Suitcase drum, tambourine and smooth guitar picks. This song is a toe tapping, knee slapping tune, recounting growing up in an unsettled house. Perhaps a little insight into the genesis of the artist’s creativity.
8. Built To Roam, Audiotree Live Sessions (2013)
The sound from the audio tree sessions was just so well produced. The heavy, driving kick drum just makes you want to get up and move. This song has an incredible flexibility to it, with the large contrasts of tempo supporting a theme of roaming rather than setting up camp (for the long term anyway). Shakey’s raspy voice mixed with velvety woo’s push his register, echoing a passion to be on the road.
9. If Not For You, And The War Came (2015)
Heavier distorted guitar and sparse percussion have the slow building intro to this song lasting over a full minute; Shakey is unsure about how to say what it is he needs to say. A story of a relationship based on meaningless drop ins and one-nighters. Another great example of how this artist creates a world of sound to support the story.
10. Foot Of Your Bed, Can’t Wake Up (2018)
Psychedelic elctro-acoustic, complete with dreamy harp flourishes and distant tuneful whistling that sparks the imagination. The lyrics tell a story of the fragility of love. Strange and poetic, mesmerising and intoxicating, this is Shakey Graves.
Shakey Graves will play Byron Bay Bluesfest this April. He has also announced a trio of headline sideshows in Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland. Dates and details below.
Shakey Graves Bluesfest 2019 Sideshows
Presented by Music Feeds
Tickets on sale now
Monday, 22nd April
Factory Theatre, Sydney
Tuesday, 23rd April – SOLD OUT
The Corner, Melbourne
Wednesday, 24th April
The Powerstation, Auckland
Tickets: AAA Ticketing