When is a guy with a guitar just a guy with a guitar? There are a million of them out there — at coffee shops and open mics, picking, strumming and singing; heard one and you’ve heard them all. Well, sometimes that guy with a guitar is just different, like Bright Eyes, the Mountain Goats, Iron and Wine or even Bob Dylan. While I’m not ready to place Austin-based singer-songwriter Shakey Graves in quite such lofty company, the plaintive plunking banjo that kicks off Graves’ 2011 release Roll the Bones caught my attention as something special, and I was proven right.
The record is a lower than lo-fi collection of gutter folk and indie blues recalling the moody simplicity of Iron and Wine’s debut The Creek Drank the Cradle. Graves’ “Unlucky Skin” is sweetened with some John Lennon-esque harmonies; he grimaces through a menacing cover of Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.” And “Built to Roam” is reminiscent of the psychedelic folk of The Kinks circa Muswell Hillbillies — complete with a whimsical la-de-da-de-da and standout lyrics: “Well, I’m the king of Brooklyn for all she knows,” and “It doesn’t matter where we’re headed ’cause / Some of us were built to roam.”
Live, Shakey Graves is a one-man band. His songs are even more loosely structured, tempos shift in the moment, he kicks a foot-pedal adding some percussion and his voice is big and grizzled despite his youthful appearance — a voice that, in time, could contribute greatly to contemporary American music. On his website Graves reminds us that our support “keeps him in clean socks and bread.”
Shakey Graves plays with The Harmed Brothers 9 pm Wednesday, July 31, at Sam Bond’s; $7.