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Shack*Shakers get back to the roots of Goth

Stewart Oksenhorn
Th' Legendary Shack*Shakers, led by singer/harmonica player J.D. Wilkes, center, makes its Aspen debut Sunday, Feb. 26, at the Belly Up. (Matt Slocum)
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J.D. Wilkes knows he faces a bit of a problem in the marketing of his music. Th’ Legendary Shack*Shakers, the Nashville-based band Wilkes has fronted for 12 years, insists on billing its style as “Gothic,” which inevitably is shortened to “Goth.” (Even the band’s own press materials shout that the Shack*Shakers are “Southern by the Grace of Goth!”) And that inevitably leads to thoughts of dreary dirges played for mopey girls in black eye shadow and alienated boys in long black coats.Those ideas are dispelled within the first seconds of “Pandelirium,” the new CD released Feb. 7 on Yep Roc Records. “Pandelirium,” the Shack*Shakers’ third album, kicks off with a wicked laugh, followed by “Ichabod! (No Glory),” a song about death, hell, sin and rebirth. But the opening laugh is exuberant, not ironic, and “Ichabod!” is insanely energetic, with a beat that suggests such high-powered styles as ska, punk, rockabilly and klezmer. The rest of “Pandelirium” carries on with that sort of manic intensity.So some downcast, black-outfitted music fans are going to be disappointed by the lack of dreariness. That’s a price Wilkes is willing to pay in his effort to reclaim the word “gothic.””It’s not Goth music at all,” said Wilkes, a harmonica player and singer who leads Th’ Legendary Shack*Shakers to their Aspen debut Sunday, Feb. 26, at the Belly Up, opening for rockabilly punks, the Rev. Horton Heat. “I don’t think we’re Goth in the sense of veils and black clothing, people in perpetual mourning, funereal mode.”In one of its several ancient meanings, goth – a term that originated with the Goths, a Germanic people dating to the third century – means an uncouth person. The word also designates a type of fiction, popular in the 18th century, that used a sinister tone to suggest romance and mystery. In America, the term was adapted to Southern gothic, reflecting the eerie atmosphere of the literature, music and culture of the American South. It is this last definition that is closest to Wilkes’ conception of gothic.

“It’s the traditional term, rather than the trendy, Americanized, fad version of it,” said the 33-year-old Wilkes, who is joined in the Shack*Shakers by guitarist David Lee and Mark Robertson, who plays the upright bass (and, in between songs on “Pandelirium,” the typewriter). “It’s Southern gothic – roots music, roots traditions. It takes an angle that there’s something grotesque and beautiful in the traditions of the South, the backdrop of Southern living.”It’s not dreary music for suicidal girls. It’s for the tougher people who are looking for something meaningful in the Southern roots.”Wilkes grew up in Paducah, a Western Kentucky town that Wilkes found lacking in any kind of traditional culture. In Paducah, someone could find music tied to cultural roots: rockabilly, bluegrass, Western swing. But you had to know where to look; in the mainstream, those styles were swamped by commercial forces.”We were culturally deprived, Western Kentucky kids, not having discovered this till late in life,” said Wilkes. “It was there, but it was all scoffed at and dismissed and replaced by hip-hop and boy bands now, and in the ’80s by disco and corporate rock.”It wasn’t just Paducah, but most everywhere in America that suffered a similar disconnection from the cultural roots. “We’ve been deprived as a nation, anywhere there isn’t a Bohemian scene,” said Wilkes.Digging through his father’s old records, Wilkes began discovering music going backward from Muddy Waters to Civil War songs. Eventually he took up harmonica, found some like-minded players and formed the earliest version of the Shack*Shakers in Paducah.”It was more or less a group experiment of getting to know rockabilly and blues and Western swing, like a 101 crash course in all this stuff we’d discovered,” said Wilkes, who moved to Nashville in the early ’90s and reconstituted the Shack*Shakers with “the more eccentric folks who were experimenting with the style.”For the most part, the style Wilkes unearthed was the blues. Starting with his father’s Dylan and Rolling Stones records, all based on blues, Wilkes traced the blues back to Muddy Waters, Lightning Hopkins, Brownie McGhee and Charlie Patton, the early 20th-century Delta bluesman. Wilkes says he is still digging back even further. “It’s nice to see the roots of the roots,” he said.

Occasionally, as on “Somethin’ in the Water (The Union Carbide Blues)” and “Monkey on the Doghouse,” in which Wilkes’ voice is reminiscent of Tom Waits, the Shack*Shakers’ connection to the blues is tangible. And Wilkes notes that the band’s instrumentation is “basically a stripped-down version of a Chicago blues band.” But for the most part, the old blues is barely recognizable in “Pandelirium.” Instead, the closer association is with rockabilly – “the white man’s version of blues,” according to Wilkes.Wilkes adds that every ethnic or racial group has its form of blues, the indigenous, organic, roots music. “The blues is not just Negro music,” he said. “It’s the tough, soulful music of any ethnic group. The white man’s blues is country; the Jew’s blues is klezmer.”The trick for Wilkes has been finding his own, contemporary expression of the early 21st-century blues of a Western Kentuckian with a wild streak. “You can rehash the past over and over,” he said. “But I wanted to get to a place of doing something of my own, personal to me, but with the toughness and soul of traditional Southern music.”With “Pandelirium,” he seems to have found it; he describes the album as “carnival music played by a stripped-down blues band.” “We’re into all these blues of all these ethnic types that make up America,” he said. “It’s all these blues mixed together – and cranked up to 10.”Onstage, Wilkes has the reputation of being a punk-type character – rail-thin, bare-chested, aggressive. But while the energy is punk, the attitude is not. To Wilkes, the Shack*Shakers are less in-your-face but more daring than current punk.”It’s kind of a punk-rock thing. It can be confrontational,” he said. “But it’s more about getting the audience involved in a cathartic release, like a Pentecostal church revival, whipping them into a frenzy and getting them involved in the moment. It’s not a passive band.”Even punk, like Green Day, doesn’t seem to have its lawlessness anymore. It seems safe. But all this music was born out of pain, the blue-collar angst of the common man. We’d be shortchanging our forefathers if we didn’t let it get under our skin.”

The mania of the sound can obscure the depth of Wilkes’ lyrics, which do relate to Southern mythology, religion and politics. “Somethin’ in the Water” is based on a true story of the contamination of the water in Paducah in the early ’60s, and the corporate cover-up of the incident. Few people introduced to the song in concert are likely to glean the story amid the Shack*Shakers’ wild rhythm and antics. But Wilkes would rather have the crowd viscerally involved than quietly pondering the words.”The only way to get people to take it seriously is not to play roots music, but to play some kind of art rock,” said Wilkes, who is also a skilled graphic artist (he designs the band’s distinctive CD covers) and a former journalist. “That’s the price I pay for playing the music I truly love. I love playing these classic, time-honored musical histories. And if I get lost to history because I played the music I loved, I’ll go down every time.” And here it is, the first little piece of the valley’s big summer music puzzle: Medeski, Martin & Wood is booked to headline the first night of Snowmass Village’s Chili Pepper & Brewfest, June 9 on Fanny Hill.Actually, that’s a pretty big piece. MMW’s last valley appearance, at the 2004 Jazz Aspen June festival, was an amazing show of groove and musicianship. Unfortunately, not many people actually heard it; opening for Buddy Guy, the avant-garde organ trio played to a sea of empty seats. Not that they seemed to notice. MMW’s sound is best-suited to an indoor venue, but a throng of people listening – and dancing – should make the outdoor gig a summer highlight.Before the show, listeners can get a survey of MMW’s recent history with the CD/DVD “Note Bleu: Best of the Blue Note Years, 1998-2005.” The best-of collection is set for release April 6. A deluxe edition will feature rare audio tracks, music videos, concert footage and more from the New York-based group. Summer, of course, is many, many shows away.

The Belly Up continues to roll out the carpet for contemporary acts. SoCal modern reggae band Slightly Stoopid, making up for a weather-related cancellation last month, plays Tuesday, Jan. 28. The band’s latest, last year’s Closer to the Sun,” is a winner. Opening is Denver band P-Nuckle, which similarly blends roots and dance-hall reggae with other styles.Also bringing their show to the Belly Up: hip-hop group Dilated Peoples, on the heels of the release of the CD, “20/20,” with Little Brother opening (Friday, March 3); the Yellow Snow Tour, with reggae acts Beautiful Girls and Mishka, plus Tristan Prettyman and Ben Taylor (Saturday, March 4); modern new wave band Action Action, with Something for Rockets (March 6). And things get really interesting in April with gypsy punkers Gogol Bordello (April 1); 12-piece, multicultural, theatrical orchestra Pink Martini (April 5); and hip-hop trio Swollen Members (April 6).Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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