THERE’S LITTLE REASON TO READ a review of Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers. For one, they describe themselves better than a critic ever could: their press release notes that the band “started their hell-for-leather, penta-caustic road show…and in a short time have earned quite a name for themselves with their unique brand of American Gothic that is all-at-once irreverent, revisionist, dangerous, and fun.” With any other band, this might seem like puffery, but Th’ Shack Shakers are much more fire than smoke.
The other, more important reason there’s little reason to read a review of the Shack Shakers is that reading is a poor substitute for experiencing; and this band is something to see. I first witnessed their explosive road show when they opened for either Southern Culture on the Skids or the Reverend Horton Heat. I can’t remember which – primarily because their performance dwarfed whoever was headlining. Thursday, June 30, Th’ Shack Shackers will bring their baptism-by-fire to the Haunt (Tickets for the 9 p.m. show are $12; Sally Ford and the Sound Outside will open). Come straight from your local bar, or wherever you choose to pray; you’ll soon be practicing at the church of the Shakers.
Led by Colonel J.D. Wilkes, a magnetic performer and talented “carnival” illustrator, Th’ Shack Shakers ostensibly began as a rockabilly band – but quickly grew to encompass a genre all their own. With supporting players from the backing band of Hank Williams III and other Nashville luminaries, Wilkes and crew incorporate punk, blues, country, jazz and even klezmer music into their fiery stew.
Described as “the last great Rock and Roll frontman” by Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra, Shack Shakers front man Wilkes began yelpin the blues through a ham radio microphone at his boyhood home of Paducah, Kent. – a short farmer’s blow away from where his future bassist Mark Robertson was cutting his teeth on punk rock and gospel in Nashville, Tenn. When their paths crossed a few years later in the city’s Lower Broadway scene, they found their individuated styles and common interests meshed. That’s when the like-minded misfits began their crusade.
In addition to his musical accolades, Wilkes has also been recognized as an accomplished illustrator and painter whose works further the band’s mission of celebrating and honoring the tradition of the American south. Alarm Magazine recently described him as the “Ambassador of Genuine Traditional Southern Culture” and compared his unique storytelling abilities to that of other Southern voices such as William Faulkner, Johnny Cash and Muddy Waters.
“Agri-Dustrial,” the Shakers’ seventh and most recent record, is remarkable in its drive and density. Unlike 2008’s “Swampblood,” which was restrained, spending thirty minutes building slowly and relentlessly while exploring flooded territory of the South, the recent record clocks in at barely more than a half-hour. Big and bluesy, both albums are conceptually cohesive: while “Swampblood” name-checked Hurricane Katrina while not getting bogged down in the fishy territory of self-righteousness, “Agri-Dustrial” explores the conditions of capitalism gone awry, and war’s bloody economy. Wilkes and company maintain a healthy sense of humor-while maintaining a sense of indignation.
“Swampblood” concluded the band’s “Tentshaw Trilogy,” whose other parts included “Believe” and the circus freakshow of “Pandelirium,” and the conclusion of the project has allowed the act a bit room to breathe (fire). There have been a few recent personnel changes, but new guitarist Duane Denison (Hank III, Jesus Lizard) plays with the enthusiastic power of his predecessors, while new drummer Brett Whitacre drives his kit like it’s a semi full of dynamite rolling down a steep hill with no brakes.
For the uninitiated, the band’s debauched live show is the necessary counterpart to their hard-hitting recordings. Hillbilly royalty Hank Williams III once said after touring with them that it was “like having SLAYER open up for you every night,” and called Wilkes and his crew, “the best damn front man and band in America.” On stage, the front man is like a mad southern preacher with a bible in one hand and a glass of strychnine in the other. Meshing Pentecostal themes with pained lyrics and show-stopping moves that draw comparisons to Tom Waits and the grotesque facial and bodily contortions of Iggy Pop, the band has developed a live show like none other.
First and foremost, the Shakers are a hoot and a holler to experience live. Ithacans who have previously seen them may tell you the story of the time that Wilkes stopped a fan with his tongue; or the time he pulled a tuft of his own chest hair right out. There’s also an anecdote floating around involving a stage-wandering wild hog. If that’s not enough to bring you out to the show Thursday, neither the Lord nor the Devil knows what is.