Updated: May 9, 2020
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“Here’s to the criminal in all of us.”
With those words, Alejandro Rose Garcia AKA Shakey Graves simultaneously introduced his band (guitarist Patrick O’Connor, bassist Jon Shaw, and drummer Chris Boosahda) and launched into an energetic, if not frenzied, performance of “Cops and Robbers” off of 2018’s Can’t Wake Up. With a tempo mirroring the troubled, manic mental state of the song’s protagonist, the fervor of the band’s playing and the crowd movement it ignited helped keep all in attendance warm. Slightly ahead of schedule, the weather began to turn a week before the official start of fall, just in time for this, the last concert of the season for Portland’s Thompson’s Point. Standing in stark contrast to the steadily falling temperature, Garcia was performing at a fever pitch. Having already undergone his ritual transformation into his alias/alter ego with the use of his signature suitcase kick drum, he opened with emblematic solo renditions of “Built to Roam” and “Word of Mouth.” The rapid fingerpicking during the back half of the latter lent itself perfectly to the wider ranging sound of the expanded arrangement.
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Rather than retreating into the fold of the band, Graves’ stage presence was amplified just like his electric guitar as he assumed the clear role of frontman. Telling anecdotal tales of road trips with suspect drivers and ill-advised decisions to move away and into an apartment with a new girlfriend, he prefaced some songs like “Pansy Waltz” that came full circle with the outro refrain “You should’ve been a better friend of mine.” Elsewhere in the set, Graves imparted some hard-won wisdom, most likely as a result of the previously mentioned ill-advised decision meeting its destined fate. Before commencing the methodic, cyclic fingerpicking of “Dining Alone”, Graves cautioned against becoming enslaved by routine and stuck in a monotonous rut, the likes of which can seem impossible to escape when in its throes. However, most songs needed no vocal introduction and were ushered in, or out, by intensely tonal and effects-driven jams like after “Mansion Door”. Once the high guitar harmonies faded away, the guitars came roaring back with gutsy bends and a shrill slide lick courtesy of O’Connor. That second guitar added a lot of depth to all of the tracks played off of Can’t Wake Up, accounting for a decent chunk of the instrumental layering present on the album and more than creating the dream-like air that courses through its run time. Most evident on “Counting Sheep”, the guitar harmonies matched those sung by Graves and O’Connor, with the latter even offering a vocal strain that could compete with Graves’ growl-scream. In fact, one of the elements of the performance that I was most curious to hear was Shakey’s vocal quality. With the years of sheer, vocal cord-shredding yells under his belt, I hoped that his voice wouldn’t be, well, shakey. It was anything but. Mixing in softer songs and falsetto vocals where the arrangement called for them, I was amazed at how he could seemingly turn the rasp on and off, a technique that he employed with great precision during fan favorite “Dearly Departed.”
Toward the end of the set, Graves and company again showcased the dynamic and diverse nature of their discography, juxtaposing “Big Bad Wolf” and “The Perfect Parts” against a concluding run of solo acoustic songs. Using a fully-saturated fuzz vocal effect, the classic children’s tale villain took on a far more sinister persona in the former, especially with the set pieces on stage replicating the dark, twisted alternative fantasy world that graces the cover of Can’t Wake Up. As though trapped in a nightmare, the synthesizer bass thickly added gravity to the line “I’m hungry let me in.” Maintaining the minor-key vibes with a greater sense of urgency, “The Perfect Parts” saw the band unleash some fury in a pure blues-rock singalong. Embracing the mantle of frontman, Graves took the animation with which he carried every song and brought it in force to the audience, running from one side of the stage to the other to pit the crowd against itself in a battle of vocal volume that followed the instrumental melody.
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After the band left the stage, Shakey again assumed his position at center stage in front of his homemade masterpiece of percussion to pay homage to his festival-busking roots. More closely resembling the highly viewed Audiotree YouTube video than the restrained, yet multi-layered oddity off of his debut record, “Roll the Bones” began this second stripped-back set. Pondered in context with the hallucinogenic set pieces, the lyrics “So go, struggle all your life and put up the good fight | They say that someday everybody dies alone,” struck a particular chord. As if caused by the daunting realization and coinciding panic of the second line, they show the deterioration of ideals over time in relation to the lyrics from “Kids These Days”: “Maybe I should give up the good fight and change my image over night.” But maybe, the purpose of the second acoustic set was to show that, even punch-drunk, Shakey Graves soldiers on, waging the righteous war from the back of the horse he rode in on. Rather unexpected, a rendition of “Hard Wired” followed and saw Graves muse more purely on love, particularly love lost in relation to undying devotion. Seeing this song played live when I really didn’t think there was a chance for it to be included in the setlist, I was moved by the raw, painful honesty of the lyrics, especially seeing that it was the first Shakey Graves song that I learned to play. Refusing to leave on such a somber note, Graves spiked the energy level yet again with a blazing rendition of “Late July”, wherein the speed of his vocals played against that of his fingers. A song about a death row inmate awaiting his, “date with that chair, oh in late July”, the lyrics recount the murder of his new gold-digging bride and his ensuing flight to Mexico to tend to his marijuana crops, as well as his thoughts on what his family must think of his crimes. Lyrically quite dark, the music paints his dire situation as somewhat more light-hearted and matter-of-fact, as tragic as a smushed spider and as natural as life and death. One thing for certain though, the song, with its blistering finger-picked outro, brought the entire set full circle and right back around to the sounds that gave Shakey his start.
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Playing right up to venue curfew with his set, there was unfortunately no encore. Reassuming his normal form, like the Hulk shrinking back down to Bruce Banner-size, Alejandro seemed to sincerely feel bad about that as he ambled off stage gesturing at his watch with a helpless frown on his face. But his performance put an emphatic cap on summer (weather aside) and on the concert season at Thompson’s Point. Co-headliners Dr. Dog also brought their jam rock vibes in force to give summer a proper farewell. Rife with vocal harmonies, dueling electric lead guitars, and triumphant major-key anthems, they sounded like a cross between O.A.R., Phish, and Bob Dylan, the essence of the last coming almost solely from guitarist Scott McMicken’s vocals. Although I wasn’t familiar with their music prior to the show, they set the precedent for a high energy evening and a rather large contingent of die-hard fans got the crowd’s collective blood flowing early following a mesmerizing opening set by Liz Cooper and the Stampede. Bringing psychedelic guitar tones, low-treble vocals, and as many extended atmospheric jams as any band could fit into 45 minutes, I was absolutely entranced by their trippy, experimental progressive garage rock. Summer and the season of outdoor shows may have concluded up here in the great North, but the discovery of these bands and deeper dives into their discography will get me by as fall begins to yield to winter.
Image from vrtxmag.com (Photo by Jeff Ryan)