Last night, Shakey Graves served traditional folk-fare complete with traveling-minstrel suitcase drum and humble, country charm to a sold-out Waiting Room crowd. The act, bolstered by an engrossing appearance from Esme Patterson, played quietly with the ideas of character-performance in live music without ever suggesting that any of those ideas need resolution.
Early on in his set at The Waiting Room, Alejandro Rose-Garcia wondered to the audience how many guitar strings he might break through the night.
It was the first of many instances of slightly self-deprecating and completely easy-going humor that cast Shakey Graves, dressed in flannel and cowboy hat, as just a charming somebody with an acoustic guitar and a suitcase drum.
Nevermind that last night’s show sold out days in advance, like almost every other show on the folk artist’s current tour (including two of three nights at The Bluebird this week in Denver).
The night opened with a 20-minute set from singer-songwriter Esmé Patterson, formerly of the Denver band, Paper Bird. Patterson and Rose-Garcia have been working together for months now, so the set was an opportunity to see Patterson’s own songs and guitar chops before her inevitable reappearance at the end of the Shakey Graves set as Rose-Garcia’s vocal foil.
Patterson plays a ferocious style of southern blues rock through a stripped down set-up: her voice, her electric guitar, one drummer.
It’s a straightforward way of writing songs with distorted power chords and unsurprising song structure. Patterson clearly has serious guitar skill, but without another instrument to carry a riff, there were few opportunities where that talent got to shine. Instead, the set was carried on Patterson’s bold voice.
In a room packed with mostly males (as it often is at folk shows), Patterson played a selection of songs from her Woman to Woman album, released last Spring by Greater Than Collective. The record gives voice to the women of famous pop songs sung by men, including “Loretta” by Townes Van Zandt and “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson, which Patterson called her angriest of the bunch last night.
The idea is to present the other side of the emotional coin. So when she plays Loretta’s version, it’s a woman fed-up with a traveling man who uses her as a revolving door. The tracks are not always so much critiques as they are nods to the fact that the originals, or the events that sparked their penning, don’t exist in a vacuum. It’s a counter-balance.
And that’s how Patterson the performer functions in the context of a Shakey Graves tour, as well. Not only does her voice literally counter Rose-Garcia’s when the two are on stage, but for a woman to play assertive and vigorous blues-rock like Patterson is maybe the most interesting thing about a style of music that, over the last several decades, has had all of its corners explored.
After all, it’s a music that was pioneered as a voice for the angry, dismissed and disenfranchised. For Patterson, as the voice of women shortchanged by men, to engage with that form is to justify its continued existence.
It’s worth noting, and probably obvious, that mostly women’s voices rang out encouragement for Patterson’s Woman to Woman selections.
Folk-artist Sean Rowe took the stage with multi-instrumentalist Rex Hussmann for a sentimental set pushed on the audience by Rowe’s deep, churning, Leonard Cohen-esque voice.
The audience graciously accepted his deft guitar-work, practically experimental in complexity for a more traditional genre. His booming voice was colored by Hussmann’s high-register southern wail. Hussmann took a couple turns on a custom xylophone that lended a world-music beat to Rowe’s road-weary troubadour style.
Rowe closed his set on stage alone with an engaging and lengthy guitar solo that was often both percussive and melodic.
Shakey Graves, whose Oct. 7 release And The War Came finds the singer-songwriter playing with a fleshed-out, full-band sound, came on stage alone.
He moved quickly through crowd solo favorites like “Roll the Bones,” each defined by the stomping suitcase drum, sparsely fingerpicked guitar (sometimes acoustic and pure, others electric and distorted) and a moaning country drawl.
Through the middle-third, Rose-Garcia had the band on stage and, because coordinating timing is more complicated with four people than alone, that part of the set felt more like plugging through a list of songs, like the full-figured “The Perfect Parts,” than spirited, guitar-driven rambling of early tracks.
For the final third, Patterson joined Rose-Garcia for songs like “Dearly Departed” and a chemistry as palpable, classic and likeable as June Carter and Johnny Cash, which is probably a comparison the two get often. The gentle affection between the two might be performance, or maybe it’s genuine. Or maybe it’s genuine onstage because it’s performance. Whatever it is, there’s a fondness between the two that pulls the audience in.
And likewise, the set was filled with more charming asides, many mid-song, from Rose-Garcia, whose acting career is most widely known for his portraying the hard-partying Swede on NBC’s Friday Night Lights.
He took several opportunities during a song he said he wrote when he was 17 to comment back on his own lyrics, acknowledging he didn’t know what he was talking about then, only to swing back into the song so forcefully that he may have believed his younger self all over again.
Such, probably, is the nature of an actor-turned-musician. Rose-Garcia puts on a Shakey Graves outfit — that flannel and cowboy hat — and plays the folksy musician with hundreds of stories he’s too humble to tell, unless you push him on it a little. Then, he pulls out a quaint foot-drum fashioned from a suitcase and begins his homegrown guitar-style. It’s why Rose-Garcia alone on stage feels more winsome than Shakey Graves the band — it’s an almost-believable pop-up, gather-round-the-fireplace moment.
These are all aesthetic choices, present to heighten the effect of the gently-shrugging traveling-musician. After all, would we buy the same things, would we want to buy them, from a guy with a mohawk, leather jacket and studded belt?
Ultimately, if the suitcase drum seems a little silly or pointless when Rose-Garcia packs it quietly into a small corner of his massive touring van next to a real drum kit, it doesn’t really matter. We’re here for performance, after all. And that performance sold out The Waiting Room last night.
And if you were wondering, Rose-Garcia only broke one string last night.