Nobody performs quite like Shakey Graves.
Roseland Theater, Portland, OR
(Photo: Patrick Weishampel)
Nobody performs quite like Shakey Graves. Musically, he offer straightforward alt-country/Americana, but when Graves performs, it’s an experience; for the uninitiated, look no further than his Audiotree performance of “Roll the Bones,” featuring Graves alone but for his guitar and his kick-pedal suitcase drum, his claim to fame. Until August, I’d missed out on him entirely until watching him take the stage at both of his Pickathon sets, the latter of which—the final set of the festival—felt like the work of a musician attempting to incite a rapture-like event, dripping with sweat in front of an audience hanging on every note. Of the performance, festival founder Zale Schoenborn said the next day, “I didn’t know he had that in him.”
But Graves is a performer, not just a musician, and his shows feel like playful deconstructions of what it means to play music. During his recent performance at Portland’s Roseland Theater, he introduced “Tomorrow” by saying that he wrote it as a 17-year-old who wanted to write a love song “even though I’d never been in love at that age.” But rather than simply leaving it at that, he broke from singing to comment on how obvious his age was when he wrote it. When, after 15 minutes of playing, his band joined him and then two of his electric guitars failed to work, he just rolled with it, letting the band play on as he bemoaned being unable to play, joking that he’ll just “do his best Johnny Ramone.” He continued singing even as he was handed a functioning guitar and began playing, the whole thing looking almost orchestrated in its smoothness. Later in the show, he accidentally pulled the mic from its stand and had to frantically stumble for it, which he played off by wandering over to his guitarist to sing with him, as though he’d planned the whole thing. In short, he’s like the lovechild between Conor Oberst and Jeff Tweedy, if that child then had one with “Parks and Recreation” character Andy Dwyer—he’s a preternaturally-talented goofball.
Unlike most solo performers who ascend to the full-band experience, Graves isn’t really content to ditch the solo act. While others save a little space in the middle of their set to play alone, roughly half of the evening was spent with the man performing by himself onstage. He first appeared solo, playing through a handful of his songs (including “Roll the Bones,” the inclusion of which so early in the set came off like a power move) before bringing his band onstage. He and his band, bathed in projected colored lines and lights, played through a 45-minute bevy of beautiful songs, which included some garage stompers and moments of sublimely twinkling guitars that sounded closer to something out of Urbana than “Via Chicago.” The most arresting moment, however, was the surprising inclusion of Nevermind track “Something in the Way,” with Graves wisely resisting the urge to do the Kurt Cobain impression he likely has up his sleeve, instead letting his own rasp complement the song.
If there was one glaring gripe to be had, it’s that his backing band felt less essential to the project. Arguably, that’s a fact baked into Graves as a person; after all, he’s the star of any room he’s ever in, and he knows it. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that he’s playing with musicians good enough to keep up with the sheer amount of spirit he has. Sequencing wise, however, it was more jarring than anything, with the band showing up solely because he can’t play five additional instruments. After about 45 minutes of this, his band left, leaving another half hour for him to do something closer to stand-up than traditional stage banter, in between song portions involving talk about the rainy weather in Portland and ragging on the weather in Texas (comparing it to the surface of the sun) and Arizona and talking about his own creative processes. While another artist might fumble the deconstructive aspects of this performance style, Graves revels in it. The ability to goof off in front of a sold-out audience while playing beautiful music seems like a pretty sweet way to live, and as a music lover, it’s easy to be a little jealous of how easy he makes it look.
Graves closed with “Late July,” joking about how the murder ballad was a song whose premise (“get married, murder her for trying to rob you, steal a bus, grow cannabis in Mexico, and be put to death for your crimes”) was a reality we would all find too relatable sooner or later. One might’ve expected him to bring his band back onstage for just one more number, and most other artists would have. But there’s nobody like Shakey Graves, a band unto himself. It was fitting to have him go out just like he came in: alone, but for his guitar, suitcase drum kit, buckets of sweat and enough charisma to black out the sun.