Shakey Graves The Tour X9 World Tour
Tuesday, Aug 21st - Wednesday, Aug 22nd
7:00 pm - 11:00 pm
- This event has passed.
Back in December 2017, Shakey Graves proclaimed on his Twitter page, “Next album. New sound. Sell your suspenders.” The tweet was tongue-in-cheek, but Alejandro Rose-Garcia, the Austin native who’s been plying his trade as Shakey Graves since 2007, was making a dead-serious point about his latest album, Can’t Wake Up (Dualtone, out May 4). This ambitious, audacious work heralds an artistic metamorphosis for the 30-year-old veteran, whose risk-taking in painting outside the lines has been rewarded tenfold. “This record is the most I’ve ever intentionally worked on a project, musically speaking, in terms of the scope of it and how much thought went into it,” he says. “It’s a dense album; there’s a lot of information going on.”
That is not a hyperbolic boast. From one moment to the next, Can’t Wake Up veers from the inevitable to the revelatory, its thirteen songs teeming with jarring musical and thematic collisions and thrillingly seamless intersections, gnarly psychological hornswoggles and ecstatic resolutions. Central to the prevailing sense of disorientation are the lead vocals, none of which is purely solo. Instead, each lead performance is shadowed by a queasy harmony or slightly out-of-sync unison part, giving the sense—especially on headphones—that these voices are emanating from inside the listener’s head.
Newfound inspirations the Beatles and Harry Nilsson (“I could only deny the inevitable for so long,” he says of his belated immersion in the sacred texts) cohered around Rose-Garcia’s longtime touchstones, including Elliott Smith, Beck circa One Foot in the Grave, Broken Social Scene, Built to Spill and other indie bands of the 1990s and early oughts.
“I’ve never worked like this before, but I went into the record with the idea of having a thesis statement of what I wanted to get across,” Rose-Garcia explains. “And the place that I got at was that I wanted it to be vaguely Wizard of Oz-themed, and I wanted it to be hectic and a little uncomfortable, like what I refer to as the Big Five Disney cartoons: Pinocchio, Fantasia, Snow White, Dumbo and Bambi. All those movies are terrifying—some of the most stressful movies I’ve ever seen. So I started with this Wizard of Oz thing—’Tin Man’ that has obvious allusions to that—and the idea of black-and-white to color.”
The creative process was paralleled by the conception and execution of the striking, hallucinatory cover art. “I built an elaborate miniature diorama in my house and used plexiglass plates, paint and train set buildings to create a forced-perspective illusion and photographed it,” Rose-Garcia explains. “The goal was to have the cover and the process to mirror the album in a way, and I am thrilled with how it turned out.”
Can’t Wake up is Alejandro/Shakey’s second official studio-album project—more official, in any case, than the several mostly solo odds-and-ends collections he’s been putting out through Bandcamp since his very first release, Roll the Bones, in 2011. It was his previous Dualtone album, 2014’s And the War Came, and centerpiece song “Dearly Departed” that lifted Shakey from hard-core cultdom to the elevated status of bona fide career artist.
Up to now, he’s been categorized as an Americana singer/songwriter, thanks to his traditionally rooted songs, fluent acoustic-guitar picking, Texas roots and the aforementioned cowboy hat. Indeed, Shakey was named Best Emerging Artist award at the 2015 Americana Music Awards. But that tag will undoubtedly be dismissed as restrictive and irrelevant once this righteously radical new album gets digested by critics and discerning listeners. Because Can’t Wake Up is an extreme example of what happens when a kid from an artistic family is encouraged to use his imagination from early childhood onward.
“Not that I hadn’t made stuff that I really wanted to, but with this record, I just wanted to go back to building stuff,” Rose-Garcia points out, referencing a lifetime of doing just that. “So the creative process of building this record started out with me in a bathrobe in my house just doing what comes naturally, and then finding pieces of what I want to write about everywhere.”
The figurative term “musical journey” is overused these days, but Can’t Wake Up is largely the result of a series of literal musical pilgrimages that took Rose-Garcia and his collaborators—drummer Christopher Boosahda, guitarist Patrick O’Connor, bass player Jonathan Shaw and honorary bandmember Rayland Baxter—to several far-flung locales. “We went to Levon Helm’s barn/studio in Woodstock, Kevin Costner’s ranch on the Roaring Fork River outside of Aspen, the Belmont Hotel in Dallas, and one final trip to Echolab Studios in Denton. In each of these expeditions, we would ship our gear in, live on-site for 10 days and let the backdrop and local characters really bleed into the experience. The patchwork quilt of it all really feels like the last few years of my life leading up to the birth of this record. This was a new process for me, and a game-changing one.”
A ton of personal experience went into the material, stretching all the way back to the five years straight out of high school Rose-Garcia spent in L.A., taking a shot at starting an acting career and taking emotional lumps as his childhood fantasy of Hollywood was replaced by the bitter reality of rejection and monotony. “Dining Alone,” in which the album hits emotional rock-bottom, ruefully recounts that experience. “Same old shoes on the same old feet/One-track mind, one-way street,” he sings, the juxtaposition of soaring melodiousness and near-despair echoing Harry Nilsson at his most existentially isolated. “Nothing’s going to change for the same old me/Eat, sleep, do it again.”
“Big Bad Wolf,” likewise, comes off like a slice of autobiography, with its references to the “silver screen” and football (he eventually landed a recurring role in the TV series Friday Night Lights, but only after returning to Texas). The title suggests both his preoccupation with animated fairy tales and his unquenchable hunger to create. A similar sense of striving permeates “Kids These Days,” as Rose-Garcia sings, “Everybody tries…to be somebody/somebody’s wet dream prom king,” amid overdriven power chords. “Mansion Door,” by contrast, shimmers with hopefulness, lifted by rippling guitars, Beatlesque psychedelic vocal flourishes, Jiminy Cricket-like whistling and images of “My one and only lonely star” twinkling in the heavens.
At the same time, “Mansion Door” establishes the overarching theme of Can’t Wake Up, which is further played out in songs like “Counting Sheep,” “Foot of Your Bed” (which can be heard as an ardent love ballad or the creepy reverie of a stalker) and “Tin Man,” stoking this song cycle to the sweat-soaked turbulence of a fever dream.
According to Rose-Garcia, the album also functions as a private dialogue with certain listeners. “I get a lot of really intense, very sweet fan mail from people who have either kept themselves from committing suicide by listening to my music or have lost one of their loved ones to suicide, but my tunes were a bright spot for them,” he says. “I got one from a girl not too long ago at a concert who said, ‘My boyfriend finally succumbed to depression, but for a while there, your music was something we’d gather around that would make him feel sane.’ So to a certain degree, this is a ‘Don’t kill yourself’ record. I really wanted to get deep inside that kind of gloomy, hectic craziness—the dream analogy of not being able to wake up or not knowing who you are. Or, in ‘Dining Alone,’ being mired in monotony. And a lot of the ‘you’ on the record isn’t a girl or a boy; it’s the person listening to the record. I’m singing into the ear of somebody who might need it. If heard some of these songs when I really needed them, I feel like they would hit the nail on the head.”
Not every song is suffused in seriousness. “We wrote ‘Aibohphobia’ in the mountains as a group,” Rose-Garcia recalls. “We were trying to work on more serious material, but we had all had a little bit of LSD and started writing that song. Most of the lyric is a palindrome, including ‘Aibohphobia,’ which is actually a joke term for the irrational fear of palindromes. Even the last sentence of the song is one long palindrome. We got the hugest kick out of playing that song for each other.”
He sees the distinctions as well as the parallels between the two artistic endeavors he’s pursued. “Music, to a degree, values individuals being themselves, in that good music tends to be rooted in honesty as opposed to a disguise,” he notes. “It can be storytelling, but it’s usually pretty direct. Whereas acting is about being unrecognizable as yourself. So in a sense, the two modes are opposite. But on the other hand, I use an alias when I make music, because I like the storytelling aspect of having an alias or a band name—it just adds another shade of paint.”
Rose-Garcia has been encouraged to go for it by Dualtone, which has given him a standing offer to release any album he feels warrants a wider release. “They’ve been really wonderful in a lot of ways,” he marvels, “but especially in the sense of trusting me and being very supportive of my putting out DIY stuff in between. Because that’s what this record is—a bigger version of DIY. That’s why I make stuff; I would do it if no one was watching me. The inherent pleasure I get out of creating anything isn’t for other people’s ears any more so than my own.”
In a sense, the album is a microcosm of Rose-Garcia obsessively artistic existence and its ever-expanding horizons. “The beautiful lesson of all this is having to trust yourself, to be willing to start something that you don’t know the outcome of,” he reflects. “Or to lean toward something just because it feels right, even though it may not be what you originally put down on paper. Those are the kind of stories in this record. They’re not so much about specific people, or even myself per se. They’re different shades of every person’s life.”
Thoreau had Walden Pond. Kerouac had Big Sur. Rayland Baxter? He had an old rubber band factory in Franklin, Kentucky, and it suited him just fine. As one of the hardest-touring artists on the road today, Baxter’s spent most of his professional life in transit, but ever since he was a kid, he dreamed of creative seclusion someplace lonely and isolated, somewhere he could sit still and devote his every waking hour to writing without interruption or distraction. When the opportunity finally presented itself in late 2016, the Nashville native pounced.
“I packed everything in my van and moved to Franklin for three months,” says Baxter. “It was the fist time I ever got to be alone and focus solely on songs like that. All I did was write, write, write all day every day. I was obsessed.”
By the time Baxter emerged, he’d penned more than 50 tunes and crafted a detailed blueprint for his spectacular new album, ‘Wide Awake.’ Deftly produced by Butch Walker, the record infuses Baxter’s easygoing, soulful sound with British Invasion melodies and rock and roll swagger, marrying lean, muscular songwriting with adventurous, inventive arrangements. It’s a cutting, insightful collection, one that takes a sardonic view the violence, greed, and division that seem to define the modern American landscape. Rather than point a finger, though, the music holds up a mirror, offering a sober reflection of the times thoughtfully bundled in bright, infectious hooks. There’s no judgment here, only keen observation, and Baxter implicates himself as much as his neighbor through it all.
“This is an album about decision making,” he explains. “It’s about being a human at the crossroads. Do I do good or do I do evil? Do I lie or do I tell the truth? Am I going to be happy or am I going to be sad? All of these questions and emotions are things I see in myself, and they’re the same things I see in everyone else no matter where I go.”
Baxter’s built a career on capturing those sorts of timeless, deeply human sentiments, bringing colorful characters to vivid life with equal parts humor and pathos. His debut album, ‘feathers & fishhooks,’ was a critical hit praised by Interviewfor its “well-worn maturity,” whileNPR described “Yellow Eyes,” the lead single from his 2015 follow-up, ‘Imaginary Man,’ as “close-to-perfect.” Stereogumdubbed the record “an impeccable sophomore break-out,” and Rolling Stonehailed its pairing of “whimsical narrative with often deceptively complex arrangements.” The music earned Baxter festival appearances from Bonnaroo to Newport Folk in addition to tours with an astonishing array of artists, including Jason Isbell, The Lumineers, Kacey Musgraves, The Head and The Heart, Shakey Graves, Lauryn Hill, and Grace Potter.
“The six months leading up to the release of ‘Imaginary Man,’ that was the first time I really started playing electric guitar and performing with a band,” says Baxter. “We did my first headline run and toured that album for a year-and-a-half, and the experience really opened up this whole new sound for me. It helped me figure out more of who I was as an artist and a songwriter and a traveler and a human being.”
It was with that newfound sense of self that Baxter entered Thunder Sound, the abandoned rubber band factory-turned-studio in the cornfields of Kentucky that would become his home for three months of intensive soul searching and songwriting.
“I blanketed the windows so no one could see inside,” he explains. “I laid a mattress down next to an old Wurlitzer so I had somewhere to sleep. I had a guitar, a desk with a lamp and some paper and pencils, and that was it. For fifteen hours a day, I wrote.”
When it came time to record his mountain of new songs, Baxter relocated to Santa Monica, California, where he wrangled an all-star studio band that included Dr. Dog’s Erick Slick on drums, Butch Walker on bass, Cage The Elephant’s Nick Bockrath on guitar, and piano wizard Aaron Embry (Elliott Smith, Brian Eno) on keys. A producer and artist equally at home working with massive pop stars and indie stalwarts, Walker immediately embraced Baxter’s vision for the album, and the result is a sunny and altogether charming collection. Scratch beneath the surface, though, and you’ll find it’s populated by a cast of characters who project a vision of the good life as they struggle to keep it all together behind closed doors. On the punchy ‘Casanova,’ the singer reckons with debts he knows he’ll never be able to repay,while the volatile “Amelia Baker” charts the narrator’s descent into near-madness as he pines for a starlet perpetually out of reach.
“We have this society where we’re obsessed with celebrity and living on the top of the mountain,” says Baxter. “But what’s at the top? Maybe it’s a lonely place to wake up.”
Late 2016 was a particular tumultuous time in the country, and though Baxter did his best to isolate himself from the outside world while he wrote, it was inevitable that some of the chaos would seep in. On album opener “Strange American Dream,” a chiming piano and spare Motown groove give way to lush harmonies and unexpected melodic twists as Baxter sings, “I close my eyes and realize that I’m alive inside this strange American dream.” Meanwhile, the soaring “79 Shiny Revolvers” finds him reflecting, “you really wanna save the world, man / well, I wanna save it, too / we can blow ’em away / the American way.”
While ‘Wide Awake’ offers plenty of broad, wide-angle musings, some of its most arresting moments arrive bundled inside deeply personal memories and snapshots. The heartfelt “Everything To Me” is a tender tribute to family (Baxter’s father Bucky, who played pedal steel with Bob Dylan and Ryan Adams among others, contributes to the record), and the laidback “Let It All Go Man” is a reminder that there’s beauty in simply being alive.
“I actually started that song two years ago on a trip to South America,” says Baxter. “I was sitting on the porch of a house in this little town in Colombia, and I was all alone playing a gut string classical guitar, just staring out at the ocean and the beach in the middle of the night. It made me realize how much unnecessary stuff we hold on to, all the grinding away we do chasing success and money and missing the big picture. It made me realize what an incredibly beautiful gift it is to be human.”
That empty South American beach may have been a world away from the rubber band factory in Kentucky, but for Baxter, the effect was the same. The solitude offered a chance to observe, to reflect, to grow, to appreciate, and most importantly, to write.