Shakey Graves, Who Plays for Keeps

Shakey Graves w/ Esme Patterson and Rayland Baxter

November 12, 2014

The Independent, San Francisco

The gentleman from Texas wears a uniform. It’s clearly studied and it’s very effective – classic white tank top, unremarkable blue jeans with a red handkerchief tucked carefully into a rear pocket, thinly shaggy locks-approaching-ringlets under a plain cowboy hat. Alejandro Rose-Garcia, who performs as Shakey Graves, dresses the part of an icon.

But this isn’t a presumption. Though the one-man country rock band has enjoyed national attention for a couple of years – and now even more so since the October release of his new record And the War Came – he’s an established legend in his hometown of Austin, Texas, whose mayor in 2012 proclaimed Feb. 9 “Shakey Graves Day.” Since he’s built his following from such an intensely local nucleus, it’s doubtful that Shakey Graves has played many tepid shows in his life, and Wednesday’s show at The Independent was certainly not one of them.

He arrived with friends-cum-openers, the professionally adorable Esme Patterson and the extremely tall Nashville drink of moonshine Rayland Baxter. Patterson’s set included many songs from her most record, a concept album called Woman to Woman that reimagines famous songs about women (i.e. “Billie Jean,” “Jolene”) by retelling them from the woman’s point-of-view, a potentially catastrophic project that she has not only intellectually pulled off but in which she has artistically triumphed. Baxter, alone on stage right with his guitar, played a warm thoughtful set and performed a short monologue about a dream in which he met Jesus in a desert.

Neither of these openers went away for good – Patterson lends vocals to several songs on Shakey Graves’s new record, and Baxter emerged for the encore to help cover Townes Van Zandt’s “Highway Kind” (they read the lyrics together off a cell phone screen) and so Shakey could announce to the audience that Baxter’s full name was an anagram of “barnyard latex.”

But Shakey Graves is, essentially, a solo act. This isn’t to say he’s unwelcoming when others join him onstage, or that his collaborations aren’t thrilling to watch. But this is a performer who’s most captivating when everything is staked on him. He smolders, he grimaces, and it is something truly fearsome to see him completely apply himself to an acoustic guitar and suitcase kick-drum. The man’s music, though fine to hear recorded, ought to always be live.

He played most of the songs from the new record, but the one arguably most anticipated was “Late July,” a long ballad – with precise haunting lyrics and refined frenzies of guitar-shredding – that begins with murder and ends with love.

“I want to have you there when my big heart stops,” he sings to a paramour, and a performance as gravely committed as this musician’s, such an event seems always on the hinge of possibility.

Photo: Erica Goldring