I imagine that the careers of all solo musicians are defined in part by a certain type of fork in the road, a decision I’ll just call The Dylan at Newport Conundrum. After achieving some form of success, these artists must decide if they will keep going it alone, keep travelling deeper and deeper inward in search of inspiration, or if they will add bandmates, become part of a collective, and allow their music to be bent toward the abilities and gifts of others.
That time seems to have come for Austin-based act Shakey Graves, the alter-ego of 27 year old, Austin-based singer songwriter Alejandro Rose-Garcia. Shakey made a name for himself on Bandcamp a few years back as a howling one-man band whose raspy, emotive voice, and frenzied guitar strumming could command an audience’s attention. His maturation over the past several years saw him add more production to his recordings and collaborate with other musicians, including Esme Patterson, with whom he created the duet “Dearly Departed,” which earned a ton of radio play and catapulted him to the status of indy-pop “it” boy.
When he took the stage at The Hollow in Albany, NY last Sunday, I watched as a horde of dozens of young women surged past me to get a closer look, cooing to each other about how cute the former teen actor looked as they held up their smartphones to record him tuning his guitar so they could text their friends. With this kind of audience, you get the sense Shakey could cash in playing three-chord love songs and tucking his hair gently behind ears without stopping to worry about stuff like The Dylan at Newport Conundrum. But the kid seems to have a little more to him than that, he seems to want more than to just be in the spotlight and be adored.
Shakey Graves brought a band with him to Albany, and showed off a glimpse of what he may be capable of as a band leader. With sweat dripping off his forehead, he wailed his way through several feedback-laden jams like “The Perfect Parts” and “Pansy Waltz” with a backing drummer and bassist/lead guitarist. It wasn’t a virtuoso technical performance by any means, but the energy and ferocity they played with made the sound compelling. Together, the trio sounded as much punk as folky Americana.
He sent the band off mid-set to perform several songs alone, with his signature guitar-and-kick drum set up. The girls giggled when he introduced his song “Tomorrow” as “Coming from the sixteen-year-old asshole inside of me to the sixteen year old asshole inside all of you.” His lyrics frequently are a unique combination of naïve emotionality and jaded cynicism, as with:
“Back when sex and amphetamines
Were the staples of our childhood physique
You used to tell me we’d turn into something
You said life was much better than this
Oh, but the closest I’ve come
To perfection is when you turned around
To steal a kiss”
There are times when he tries to get a little too cutesy for me, I prefer his writing when the words stay descriptive and imaginative, as in “Family Tree” and “Roll the Bones.” Honestly, when Shakey is performing solo, there’s a homogeneity to his guitar riffs and kickdrum beats that could get flat-out boring if it wasn’t for the genuine passion he brings with his vocal style. Things really get interesting when his lyrics offer the listener a unique, compelling third dimension.
Of course, he can also count on the band to bring that extra dimension and depth now. I came away excited about where Shakey Graves can go from here, with other strong musicians surrounding him, I think there is lots of new territory to explore.
Speaking of a performer who has a nice backing band adding layers to their charismatic, leading personality, Nikki Lane warmed up the audience with a polished, easy to like set. Lane’s vocal style and band occupy the borderland between blues rock and country that so many contemporary artists are trying to explore. Her voice has a country twang that plays against her pedal steel guitarist’s atmospheric tones, while her drummer and bassist pound out driving rhythms that sometimes reminded me of The White Stripes.
Lane is tall and pretty, and many of her tunes are that most relatable of song subjects – angry, you-done-me-wrong ballads trashing some former lover. She dramatically pulled a metallic band off her left ring finger and dropped it to the floor, telling the crowd, “This is what my divorce sounds like,” before launching into her song “Man Up.” Whoever booked this show and paired Lane with Shakey really had their finger on the pulse of the audience they drew.
Here is Shakey Graves performing “Pansy Waltz” in a nice example of how his sound is enhanced by his new backing band:
Shakey Graves has U.S. tour dates set through August in support of his album And the War Came. Nikki Lane released her second album, All Or Nothin’, last May, and will be returning to New York to play Mountain Jam in June.
 Nikki Lane seems like the kind of girl many girls would like to be, or like to befriend. Stylish and confident without a note of prissiness, she rounded the ladies up for a night out, bought them all a couple beers and got them bitching about their no-good ex-boyfriends. Just when she’s got them feeling like they all deserve a boy who really appreciates them, an adorable kid named Alejandro shows up to whisk them of their feet with his sensitive, romantic sweet-talk and sparkly-eyed charisma. Well played, The Hollow.