Shakey Graves – an Austin musician with a big future, mark my words.
Every now and then I make a music discovery that is so good and so unexpected it stops me right in my tracks. Last night I was playing the free downloads from the Eye in the Sky Collective and I suddenly heard a song I never heard before that sounded like it might have been around forever – a sure sign of talent and inspiration. “Built to Roam” by Shakey Graves. Just a perfect, perfect song.
And after a bit of digging I got more shocks: Shakey Graves, aka Alejandro Rose-Garcia, is from Austin and has been featured by the Austin Chronicle and on KUT – by other people who were affected the same way by his music. I could have seen him live at South By Southwest if I had known. I will definitely be on the lookout for new chances to see him play.
Furthermore, I listened to his album, Roll the Bones on Bandcamp all the way through, and loved every song. His style is a blend of classic blues, alt country and folk music. Mainly just great songwriting. The picking in some of his songs make me think of blues legends like Bukka White. The songs are available on a “pay what you want” basis. Give it a listen and see if you don’t think it’s worth paying for. We need to keep this man in business. He’s brilliant.
Here is his Tumblr page, which includes dates for upcoming performances. If you’re in the Austin area, you can see him at the Hole in the Wall on Thursday, March 29 and at the White Horse on Saturday, March 31.
Shakey Graves will be performing at the Kohoutek music festival in Claremont CA on April 28 and is looking for other venues in the West – New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, etc. (E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any ideas.)
The best music isn’t always found in night clubs or concert halls. Sometimes all you have to do is go to church.
The Thomas Family of Elgin, Texas is a perfect example. The group has been serving up great gospel music in church and in public for generations.
The family of musicians is an integral part of the service each Sunday at the Greater Mt. Vernon Zion Church. They also perform at benefit concerts and festivals such as Hogeye and Western Days.
Patriarch of the group is Monty Thomas. He is 66 and has been singing gospel for about 50 years. He plays guitar, bass guitar and steel guitar.
Although he is passionate about gospel music, Monty’s top priorities are his church and his family. “When I was in the Gospel Tones we would sing in Houston or Dallas and get back at 5 a.m. I was not able to go to church,” he said. “I am here with my family. We sing and worship together. Most gospel singers say they belong to a church and the church doesn’t even know who they are. I don’t sing for style or getting the money. If I made lots of money and no soul got anything out of it, I have not benefited at all.”
In addition to Monty, the Thomas Family’s musical contributions come from his wife Ivory (piano); daughters Barbara (organist), Denise, Deborah Edwards, Montie Franks, Gloria Hill (when she comes down from Dallas); grandsons Sterling Monty Thomas (drums) and Donavan Monty Thomas.
Ivory was already a musician when she and Monty met in high school. She has been playing piano in church since age 11.
Monty’s grandson Sterling, who will graduate from Elgin High School next week, plays drums in the EHS jazz band and will soon study sound engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos. His grandson Donavan, 12, also plays drums.
Drummers have a great advantage as singers, Monty said. “You’ve got to have good timing, a beat within yourself. A person that does not have timing can’t be a very good singer or musician.”
Barbara Thomas, who serves as organist for the group, also works as a DJ for KAZI 88.7 FM under the name “Pepper.”
Monty sang with the Taylor-based group, the Gospel Mourners in 1963. They still produce music, though only two of the original members are still living: Monty and R.L. Killingworth.
His second group was the Elgin-based Gospel Tones, from 1985 to 1995. In addition to Monty, the group featured Rev. Roy Rogers, Walter McDonald, Wayne Davis, Bobby Reed and the late Brother Aires.
Monty and Eugene Stark, husband of Rev. Bunnie Stark, are members of the Taylor Quartet Association. On the second Sunday night of each month, they travel to area churches like Hornsby Bend Church. Monty is also part of a group of musicians who provide backup for gospel groups who don’t use instruments.
Monty has an encyclopedic knowledge of gospel music. His favorites include the Dixie Hummingbirds (the group that sing backup on Paul Simon’s “Love Me Like a Rock”) and the Mighty Clouds of Joy. Monty is also a big fan of the Soul Stirrers, a group made famous by member Sam Cooke – though he is quick to point out, Cooke didn’t “make their sound.” He was in and out of the group, which featured other great singers like Paul Foster. Two versions of the Soul Stirrers still perform, one based out of Chicago and one in San Antonio.
Although he’s a fan of the blues, Monty is a dedicated gospel player. He has been asked to play blues before, but refused. He says gospel music has challenges and advantages that blues doesn’t.
“You can take a blues singer and put ‘em in a gospel band and they don’t make it too well,” he said. “You never seen a gospel player look down at his guitar. When I play, I forget about my guitar and concentrate on my voice.”
Even some of the blues greats don’t have that skill, he said. “BB King, as good as he is, doesn’t sing and play at the same time. John Lee Hooker didn’t either.”
He reads music, but prefers not to except when he’s learning new songs. “Bass guitar and lead guitar, if you’re reading word for word it’s not gonna be as good. You’ve got to memorize and go according to the Spirit. We never sing our songs the same. We always do something different.”
Getting to know the music and singing from the heart is important for the congregation as well as the gospel singer, he said. “If you see a person singing and looking down at a book, very seldom he gets happy and shouts. The spirit can’t come in.”
The Greater Mt. Vernon Zion Church at 215 A Church Street will have a Homecoming celebration on the fourth Saturday in September and will receive a plaque commemorating the congregation as one of the oldest in Elgin.
Check out the Thomas Family’s music
The Thomas Family has put out two CDs of their music, both released by Figment Studio in Austin: “There’s Not a Friend” and “Hold On” — the second one has proven quite popular, said Monty. “This CD has been very good to us.” The family doesn’t market the albums, but they are available at shows. If you can’t make it to one of their shows, you can order a copy directly from Monty at (512) 281-3153.
Here are some freely downloadable songs, posted with permission:
Say you kind of like the sound of gospel, but your experience is limited. Maybe you’ve only heard a song or two from Aretha Franklin or caught a few verses of something while dialing through on the car radio; you liked what you heard but didn’t know where to go next. Monty Thomas has a few recommendations to get started down the gospel road.
Troy Ramey and the Soul Searchers of Atlanta, Georgia
The Dixie Hummingbirds
The Soul Stirrers – Chicago version and San Antonio version. “The Soul Stirrers are still good,” he said. “There was a split years ago. The one in San Antonio has more volume. The one in Chicago is more traditional. You won’t catch them doing hip hop.”
It’s a common complaint from musicians: “I don’t do goth/post-rock/folk/trip hop/indie/prog (or whatever). You can’t pigeonhole me!”
Same thing with fans. I’ve read a ton of forum threads complaining about genre names. “What the hell does post-rock mean? Aren’t bands still playing rock? Why isn’t it called post-rap? Post-rock isn’t a real genre.” And various other quibbles from people who hate seeing their favorite musicians get pigeonholed, or resent seeing musicians they don’t like surf their way into undeserved recognition atop some made up fad.
I totally get it. I’m the king of “you can’t pigeonhole me.” I’m 100 percent eclectic in musical taste. Politically, neither fish nor fowl.
I do think there’s a nasty tendency in some circles (*cough* Pitchfork) to use labels in order to dismiss a band or collection of bands. Like, “Oh yeah, we figured out what these guys are. Just another example of X. If anyone still cares about X, this is part of that whole X knockoff crowd. That scene is so quaint isn’t it? Moving right along…”
Drumfunk, Sqweee, Glitch-hop, Witch House and Turbo-folk are just a few of many genre names that make me scratch my head. Are these really real? Is somebody pulling our legs?
Who comes up with this stuff anyway? It used to be DJs and music journalists, but now I guess it’s mostly bloggers with a lot more hits than I get. Somehow the names catch on, silly or not. Shoegaze is one I use a lot that sounds pretty ridiculous (whatever you want to call it, I like it). It was originally a put-down for bands playing noise-drenched stuff who tended to stand on the stage and look down at their shoes, but now it’s so common that bands will claim the term.
Classifying music into groups will always be a messy business. There are some musicians (usually my favorites) who defy classification. There are musicians who get lumped into a group who sound nothing like their supposed peers.
Television’s Marquee Moon (1977) came from one of the original CBGBs bands, often touted as one of the first punk bands or even “proto-punk.” Yet to me its style has a lot in common with Magazine’s Real Life (1978), which came out just a year later and is considered one of the first postpunk albums. Can you really go from proto- to post- in just one year?
World music is a really messy genre. It can sound like anything, and isn’t everything part of the world? And speaking of the world, now everything has gone global. You have millions of musicians, talented and otherwise, making tunes on laptops and releasing them on the Internet. Anyone can be influenced by anyone. It was hard enough to classify things in the blues-R&B-rock continuum, especially when jazz and classical kept rearing their ugly heads. Now throw in influences from every country in the world and classifying anything becomes virtually impossible.
Yet we have to try. Why? Because if we don’t, we can’t find music we like, and we can’t talk about it.
I understand the principle of “it’s all music.” But don’t you think the average Chuck Berry fan would be a bit put off if you played a Godspeed You Black Emperor album said, “Here’s some of that music stuff you claim to like”? And suppose he had an open mind and even kind of liked it, but just never heard GYBE before and asked, “what is this?” Sorry, but I’m going to have to say post-rock, because he might then find and enjoy Sigur Ros. Post-rock is a clear case of “you gotta call it something.” Would you consider a Chuck Berry song rock? Definitely. Would you consider a Godspeed You Black Emperor song rock? Not too sure… Thus, post-rock.
I agree that genre names often suck, but they can be useful, even some “hairline distinctions.” For example, dark ambient. It bleeds into regular ambient (another term people argue over), as well as industrial (ditto). But there are certain groups that people who say they like dark ambient tend to like. I like to give and get recommendations. How am I supposed to do that if I can’t pick a genre name? If I just ask for “music” recommendations, I could get anything from Beethoven to the Ramones. I like both of those, but they’re not going to help me find Coil, Lustmord or Voice of Eye.
A genre name might be a stupid word, but once it catches on and people start hanging ideas on it, what can you do? You’re pretty much stuck with it.
Still, I can’t help but wonder what will happen if people are still listening to this stuff hundreds of years from now? Are we going to get names like tenth wave Electro-acoustic-neo-post-psych-prog? Hell, that name probably exists already.
Austin has drawn me like a magnet for almost as long as I can remember. The culture, with its mix of Texas cowboy brashness and hippy tolerance, is wonderful and totally unique. For a creative type like myself, the live music and open-minded nature of the place is irresistable. I love my state in general as most Texans do, but Austin is the best part for me. It’s like an oasis.
Few bands embody that Austin spirit like the Asylum Street Spankers. The band has become my favorite live act. I’ve seen show after show, each one different from the one before, but always enjoyable. The group takes its name from Guadalupe Street in Austin, once referred to as Asylum Street because it runs by the state mental facility. The term “spanker,” is a double entendre. It can mean a skilled musician, or just exactly what it sounds like. In fact, the band’s entire name is a double entendre. Think about those initials.
It’s hard to describe the band’s music. Styles include swing, jazz, country, blues, hip hop, ragtime, gospel — you name it. The music has a vintage sound, with all acoustic instruments, but the songs are immersed in rock ‘n’ roll lore and pop culture references. The band’s central figures are Wammo, a funny, mouthy dude who looks a bit like a biker, and Christina Marrs, a pretty woman with an even prettier set of pipes who has a demure girl-next-door appeal — but can belt out the raunchiest lyrics you’ve ever heard. The remaining lineup changes a bit from year to year, but always features top notch musicians. Sometimes former Spankers turn up and fill in. It’s almost like a collective.
The Spankers absolutely refuse to be pigeonholed. They’re funny, but they’re not a comedy act, and no way are they a novelty act. They’ve done X-rated albums, a drug album, a children’s album, an Off Broadway show and most recently, a gospel album. You never know what they might do next, but it will always be entertaining. You really have to hear them yourself.
Luckily for me, they’ve made it easy. Most of the Spankers albums are here on Bandcamp. You can stream the songs for free or purchase the albums as downloads, or as physical CDs. I like everything they do, but I especially recommend What? And Give Up Show Biz? because it captures the band’s live sound, which I love.
Some of my favorite songs are “Beer,” from Spanker Madness, “Hick Hop,” from Mercurial and “My Favorite Record” from the album of the same name.
Check out the band’s website: www.asylumstreetspankers.com. You can also order some albums that aren’t posted on Bandcamp, including their X-rated EPs, T-shirts and members’ solo albums. And check out their tour schedule. If the Spankers turn up in your town, go see them. You won’t regret it.
These videos will give you an idea what the band’s live act is like:
I went out on a CD run a while back and spent more than I probably should have in Waterloo Records. On a whim, I stopped at a Goodwill on the way home and checked out their CD stash. Saw a few likely ones that I already had or that were too scratchy. Got tired of looking and decided to give this one a chance. And it might have been the best thing I got that day. Also interesting, because I was in a Texas music mood that day and didn’t know Anson Funderburgh was a Texan till I looked him up.
Sins, released in 1988 by New Orleans-based Black Top Records features some great rockin’ blues and R&B. Funderburgh is a great blues guitarist with a hell of a band and Sam Myers, who was the band’s regular singer and harmonica player from 1985 until he died in 2006. If you’re into any classic blues by the likes of BB King, you should check this band out. I will certainly pick up more of their albums when I need to scratch that particular itch. Kind of embarrassing in a way – this is a band I should’ve known about already. Better late than never I reckon, though I really wish I could’ve caught them live while Sam Myers was still around.
Interesting bit of trivia I picked up from Wikipedia: He wasn’t on this particular album, but in 1989 and 1990 Mike Judge was their bassist before he went on to greater fame as the animator and creator of Beavis and Butt-head and King of the Hill.
(The other ones I got on the same CD run were Long Leaf Pine by San Antonio-based The Krayolas and a 2-CD compilation of Texas Swing by Adolph Hofner. I haven’t made up my mind about those yet. I’m still digesting them. Especially the Hofner comp – 35 is a lot of songs!)