When I discovered Shakey Graves
about three years ago — yes I'm calling it a discovery because I had accidentally double-clicked his album cover on Bandcamp
— I hadn't the slightest idea of what I had stumbled on.
As far as I could tell, it was his first and only album — it was called Roll The Bones
It was a collection of poorly recorded lo-fi folk songs written by an enigmatic young soul who's biography spoke great lengths about who he was as a person, it read: "Shakey Graves is a gentleman from Texas".
I don't know why but when I read that to myself all those years ago, I thought it was such a powerful stance on his anonymity — as if the only way you could find him is if you were searching for him all along.
I downloaded the album and tried to remind myself to listen to it on my morning commute.
Fast forward one year later and I'm standing in a sparsely filled hole-in-the-wall basement at my first Shakey Graves show in New York City — he was opening for a band who's name is as equally forgettable as their performance.
Roll The Bones
, the album that I once, on a whim, stored to my computer, had now become the driving force of all my interests in music.
Every lyric, note, and beaten recording that muffled in the background, I knew by heart. Every chord change, time signature, and millisecond it took for one song to end and the next one to begin, I could queue in.
I would harmonize all of my favorite parts in each song and the track list burned so clearly in my head that I didn't need to look at a screen to tell me what song was next — I just knew. In fact, I knew just about everything there was to know about Shakey Graves — everything except for one minor detail — what he sounded like live.
Sure, I had the acoustic version of "Late July" that I stole off of Youtube and a random live compilation of several other songs — but in the end, I really had no idea what to expect.
And simply put — I didn't expect much.
How could I? I wanted to be realistic.
The album held such true beauty, but it was cloaked under the quiet hum and hiss of poor recording techniques and the twangy tone of a run-down acoustic guitar.
The melodies were stunning and woven to near perfection, but the thought of him playing these hushed songs live, had me assuming that the charming artistry wouldn't translate well to a rowdy New York City audience — it was twenty or so minutes before he was set to go on stage and I was already nervous for him.
Then a man, wearing gashed cowboy boots, a faded brown cowboy hat and a white tank top, approached the microphone.
He was carrying with him a small makeshift suitcase drum in one hand and his acoustic guitar in the other — he surveyed the crowd, exhaled into the microphone, smiled, and began.
Now there's no simple way to put this, so Im just going to say it: In a matter of seconds, everything I knew about this man had immediately been thrown out the window.
Those songs that I fell in love with for their slow pacing and gradual pick-ups were completely stripped of all their innocence. The melodies that were structured so elegantly it could make your heart sore, were torn and mangled into completely new songs struck by the rumbling tonal thunder of a Texas-worn blues.
Songs like "Built to Roam", "Proper Fence", and "Bullys Lament" began to expose new qualities that I hadn't thought were possible in songs that were once so gentle. Every bridge, verse and chorus — all drastically altered by his infectious tone, his wicked fast finger picking, and his ability to constantly switch up the timing on a pins drop.
And I hadn't thought it was possible, but that moment became the second time I was completely blown away by the same set of songs. Fuckin' A, right!?
This brings us to the present day —
Shakey Graves has played in New York City a total of six times since I started listening to him — thus, I've had the pleasure of seeing him live six times.
Every time since the first has been an experience within itself. Regardless of how many times I witness this man play the same set of songs, the tunes always manage to embody a new style, technique, and tone that he acquired during his time spent roaming the vast wasteland of Austin, Texas.
That said, often times I channel my nostalgic side and wonder if he'll ever revert to the style that I once fell in love with years ago — the old acoustic and harmonica sound attributed to his studio album — but truly, it doesn't matter.
I realize now that those tunes don't ever need to be revisited. They were built to be naked — built to be stripped and dismembered just so they could be restructured and completed on a whim in a live setting. With that, each studio version becomes a template for what his live performances have the potential to be — this goes for his sophomore album, And The War Came
You'll never go to a Shakey Graves show and hear the same song twice — scratch that, of course you will— but you'll never hear that song played twice the same way. Something will always be different— the introductions could be slower, the pickups could be faster— anything is possible and nothing is out of reach.
Which is why as a musician and writer I solemnly promise that I will forever stand before Shakey Graves and bow my head — for what we are looking at is a musical god amongst men mdash; a blessing to all the writers. He is our most valuable soldier in the war against half-assed live performances — our North Star — follow him and he will lead you in the right direction.
Check out the photos from Shakey Graves's s performance at the Bowery Ballroom below: