The Legendary Shack*Shakers
July 3rd, 2009
The Southgate House
Close your eyes. Listen to what’s around you. What do you hear? A little bit of country? A little bit of rock and roll? A little bit of blues? What about the background noise? The room is filled with laughter and conversation and the clink of beer bottles. Everyone present is having a fantastic time. Somewhere in the room, someone orders another round for “the boys”. Next to you, you can hear the drag of a match across a matchbook as someone lights their cigarette. The scent of Marlboro Reds fills the room. In front of you, you can just barely hear the shuffle of feet on the dance floor over the din of the room. Where are you? Open your eyes. Look around. What do you see? There are men in cowboy shirts in perfectly cuffed denim and their pompadours greased to within an inch of their lives, but never a hair out of place. Next to the bar, one of them is using the mirror to create the perfect ducktail. What about the women? The room is full of women in pencil skirts and fully fashioned stockings. There are women in quaint sundresses and cardigans. There are women in pedal pushers, and perfectly starched white shirts, tied at the waist. They are all perfectly coiffed and perfectly made up. Everyone in the room looks flawless. Look at the stage. What do you see? Not much, to be honest. There is a pair of well worn cabs and heads on each side of the stage, well loved and well lived in from being schlepped from show to show across the country. In front of each, a well worn guitar; far stage right, an upright bass sits on its side. In the centre of the stage, sits a lonely microphone, its mirrored finish reflecting the dim lights back onto the crowd. The only thing keeping it company is an equally lonely harmonica, which sits on the drum kit. Behind everything, a simple drum set up takes up the majority of the rear of the stage. The bass head is the only thing that indicates who will be momentarily taking the stage; it features a hand painted face with simple lettering bearing only the name Th’ Legendary Shack*Shakers.
Where are you? 1950s Memphis? If you didn’t know any better, you would be inclined to think that you’ve stepped back in time into a world where men were gentlemen and women were bombshells. If you thought that, you would be sorely mistaken. You haven’t left the present time and you’re still in the same place, just over the river from Cincinnati. You are, of course, seeing one of the most dynamic live acts on the road right now, Th’ Legendary Shack*Shakers
With the clock inching nearer and nearer to the witching hour, people started moving towards the stage, first a few, then the entirety of the ballroom, bartenders included. Nobody was going to miss what was about to take place. Taking the stage just after midnight on July 4th, Th’ Shack*Shakers headlined the first annual Independence Day Blowout. They arrived with little fanfare; Brett slid in behind his kit and got situated. Mark walked up quietly and picked up his bass and made chitchat with the front row. Mr. Duane Denison picking up his guitar to do a bit of tuning before all hell breaks loose. Appearing out of nowhere is Colonel JD Wilkes. At first glance, nobody in the band is any different than anyone else in the room. Behatted and bespectacled, they are all wearing a variation of the “accepted uniform”. What sets them apart from everyone else though? You don’t have time to think about an answer before Colonel Wilkes leans down, picks up his microphone and his harmonica and the room explodes into a swirling mass of bodies and energy, most of which comes from Wilkes himself. Wilkes puts every current front man out there to shame. He is everything a front man should be, and nothing they shouldn’t. To say that he is charismatic would be an understatement. One would think that the word charisma was invented just for him. By midway through the set, the ballroom was nearly completely full as patrons from the other rooms in the house flooded into the main room out of sheer curiosity as to what, exactly, was going on.
To attempt to accurately describe the bands stage presence would be doing them a terrible disservice, for this is a band that must be experienced. Take everything that you know about the passion of the Deep South, set it to music and caffeinate it. Even then, that doesn’t come close to being accurate. Wilkes best be likened to a southern Baptist preacher in his most spirit filled moments of preaching hellfire and brimstone. He moves in a way that no person should be able to and still be able to play a mean harmonica solo. In any given moment, his arms and his legs are going in four different directions at one time. One second he is prancing around the stage like a rooster and in the same breath, he is posturing like he is fronting the biggest rock band in the world that is playing the largest arena show of their career. He dances like a human marionette; he responds so strongly to the ebb and flow of the music that is begs the question as to who is pulling the strings. That answer is quite simple: he is possessed by the spirit of delta blues and bona fide punk rock. One second he’s shadowboxing around Duane and the next second, he’s playing air trombone or air accordion or some other invisible instrument that he’s pulled out of his magic bag. Maybe antics aren’t your thing. It is necessary to then pay attention to Wilkes’ expressions. He twists and contorts his face and uses muscles that most of us aren’t aware that we have.
As a band, it is obvious that they are there to have a good time. They are also there to make sure that you are there to have a good time. If it’s apparent that you aren’t, then they will make sure that you will become a part of the show so that you have no choice but to have fun. Everything within reaching distance became fair game to be included in the performance. Everything Wilkes could reach out and touch became a prop. Every person around him became a prop. If he couldn’t reach it, he moved so that he could or had the person come closer. It’s that kind of inclusion that makes it essential to pay attention at all times. You never know when he might pluck your hat or your glasses off your head or your scarf from around your neck.
Concerning the setlist, the band drew from their extensive back catalogue as well as a new song entitled Oil Spill, much to the delight of the crowd. Drawing largely from their latest two records, Believe and Pandelerium, they played with enough variety to appease both the diehards in the crowd as well as those who were merely there to see what the ruckus was about. Opener Swampblood did an excellent job of whipping the crowd into frenzy. Iron Lung Oompah turned the floor into a bizarre dancefloor that was half mosh pit and half actual dancing. The two biggest highlights of the set were a rather spirited version of Agony Wagon and Ichabod, the latter of which was a very vocal request during every song break for the entirety of the first half of the set. They transitioned seamlessly from one song into the next, only to be broken up by Wilkes’ and Mark Robertson’s in between song banter and various amusing anecdotes. Other songs of note include Sound Electric Eyes, and their only proper single, CB Song. They finished their set out with Pinetree Boogie. The only thing that would have made the set completely perfect would have been the addition of Hoptown Jailbreak, which I have yet to hear live.
In a world where Nickleback and pop tarts are ruling the airwaves, Th’ Legendary Shack*Shakers are a breath of fresh air. They are real and they are pure and they are honest. There is a distinct absence of any sort of pretensions, even in the crowd. Here, nobody is excluded. It doesn’t matter of you’re not metal enough or rockabilly enough or “scene” enough. There is an unspoken thread of punk rock solidarity that holds the room together. We’re all family, and that’s how it should be. That being said, this is absolutely a show that nobody should miss. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like the style of music. Sit in the back and just observe; if you aren’t moved to dance at least once, then you’re in dire need of professional attention. This band is hell bent on turning cynics into believers, and they do so with unparalleled energy and gusto that you have no choice but to have a good time. In this uncertain economic climate, everyone needs to have a little fun, and this is just the band to make you forget about your woes. Oh yeah…and don’t forget your dancing shoes.
The band are readying their ext disc, to be tentatively released in the fall.