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What Shakey Graves Learned From One-Man Bands

What Shakey Graves Learned From One-Man Bands
Nina Westervelt
Although Alejandro Rose-Garcia isn't a Colorado native, it's easy to mistake him for one, given his easygoing manner and sincere love of the outdoors. Since taking the stage name Shakey Graves and gaining national popularity through his bluesy, honest brand of folk rock, he's passed through Denver many times, and describes the city as "one of those cities that I've never lived in that I feel like I have," citing its "perfect amount of grit and sweetness" as a reason that he loves coming here. Well, lucky for him, he'll be back in the Mile High City on June 24 to bring his six-string and suitcase kick drum to the Coors Light Stage for the 2017 Westword Music Showcase.

Ever since picking up a guitar at thirteen, the Austin-born Rose-Garcia apparently hasn't stopped making music. Even as a teenager, he "took solace in manipulating sound." He started recording himself with a four-track cassette as soon as he could play, and has since composed an impressive repertoire of perfectly crafted folk tunes that are both familiar and excitingly fresh.

His sound was influenced by early-2000s indie rock like Built to Spill and Broken Social Scene, as well as blues artists like Lead Belly and Skip James, which helped Rose-Garcia "create [his] own form of blues." While these influences inform his music, the key aspects of Shakey Graves come straight from his own creative ambitions. "I wanted to make music that didn't sound like myself," says Rose-Garcia, who was always amused by people asking "That's you?" when he played his recordings for them during his early days. "It's always been me chasing myself around."

Perhaps the biggest influence on Shakey Graves came at a show he went to when he was still finding his sound. There he watched several folk musicians play as one-man bands, playing guitar and singing while operating percussion with their feet. This led Rose-Garcia to invent his famous suitcase kick drum, which is exactly what it sounds like: a drum head imposed on a hard-shell suitcase that he plays by hitting a kick-drum pedal with his heel. He describes his first show with percussion as "the first time [he] saw someone dance at one of [his] shows."

His first publicly released product came in 2011, with the debut full-length, Roll the Bones, a ten-track, 35-minute opus that takes listeners on a journey through the soul of Shakey Graves while treating them to heartfelt sing-along choruses and beautifully honest lyrics. The album was recorded at Rose-Garcia's home in Austin, some of it in his back yard. He admits that he specifically went for an ambiguous sound on the record, especially in the way he recorded backup vocals. He wanted people to ask, "Is this one guy or ten girls singing?"

click to enlarge JARRED GASTRIECH
Jarred Gastriech
Despite the inconspicuous nature of this release, the record earned Shakey Graves notable success. The mayor of Austin declared February 9 'Shakey Graves Day', which is now an annual holiday in which Rose-Garcia performs in his home town and his releases are available for pay-what-you-want on Bandcamp.

Although some scattered EPs and live recordings surfaced in the years following Roll the Bones, the proper, full-length followup to the powerful debut came in 2014 with the release of Rose-Garcia's sophomore effort, And the War Came. This record stands out from all other Shakey Graves releases in several ways. For this album, Rose-Garcia had a lineup of musicians back him up on the record, giving it full instrumentation, and at many point, a much bigger sound than his previous efforts. This is augmented by the presence of artist Esmé Patterson on three of the album's eleven tracks, including the widely popular "Dearly Departed."

And the War Came
 was also a divergence because it was recorded in a studio as opposed to Rose-Garcia's house and was released by a label (Dualtone Records) instead of posted online. This created a record that feels deeper and fuller than previous releases. As Rose-Garcia puts it, "And the War Came was me finding something I hadn't created yet."

Next on the horizon for Shakey Graves is the June 30 release of And the Horse He Rode In On, a compilation of his 2012 EP The Donor Blues and the album of B-sides and previously unreleased songs Nobody's Fool. When Rose-Garcia listened to these two releases consecutively, he was surprised by how well they worked together, saying that they sounded the most like him of any of his albums, so he released them on vinyl.

Nowadays, most Shakey Graves performances include roughly half the set being played solo and the other half with a full band, with the nature of the song determining the required instrumentation. Rose-Garcia, who has a deep love for the tradition of storytelling through song, seeks to deliver performances that conjure up a feeling of shared experience: "What I look for in a show is a sense of mutual understanding."

Next Saturday will be no different when Rose-Garcia takes the Coors Light Stage at the Westword Muic Showcase to instill festival-goers with a sense of entrancing wistfulness that is all at once humorous, romantic and astoundingly unique to the man known as Shakey Graves.

Westword Music Showcase, Saturday, June 24, Coors Light Stage. For more information and tickets, visit Showcase online.
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