Have you ever wondered what kind of music would be played to accompany a Flannery O’Connor short story reading at a circus with a Russian dancing bear driving a hot rod funny car around her? Oh, c’mon, we’ve all wondered it at some time or another! What kind of band would combine southern-fried blues rock with Nashville country, carnival style polkas, fifties rockabilly, gospel preaching, punk, and vaudeville? That kind of band exists and has been called one of the best live bands ever. Their frontman has been called the best by many fellow musicians and music trades. The band is Th’ Legendary Shack*Shakers (you apparently have to put the apostrophe and star there), their show-stealing frontman is Col. J.D. Wilkes, and they are coming to rock in a town near you!
Believe is the band’s second album and first with Yep Roc. Wilkes’ band is a perfect acquisition for the North Carolina label and would easily be able to tour with the likes of The Reverend Horton Heat, Jason Ringenberg, Dexter Romweber, or Southern Culture on the Skids. But apparently Wilkes’ stage act is leaving them all in the dust. Whether he’s setting himself on fire or practicing his hillbilly martial arts, Wilkes puts on one hell of a show. He’s part carny / sideshow act, part gospel preacher and part rock and roll legend all wrapped up into one skinny white package. Oh, and he paints carnival posters on discarded home movie screens too.
Starting with that old train whistle a-blowing and then crashing into a rollicking rockabilly Russian polka, “Agony Wagon” sets the album careening headlong and at high speed. “Creek Cats” takes on more of a Squirrel Nut Zippers after a whiskey bender feel with the added effect of a `singing into a can’ sound. The album really takes a turn for the sinister on “Where’s the Devil…When You Need Him?” With a more menacing vocal effect, making Wilkes sound like a younger Tom Waits, Wilkes talk-sings along to various percussion sounds until the high-octane chorus where he screams almost metal / Alice Cooper-style.
J.D. Wilkes describes his own personality to perfection in the aptly titled “Piss and Vinegar” in which he claims himself “I’m a jumpin’ Jim Dandy doing a hillbilly boogaloo.” Some of the songs that are replete with screams, yelps, and howls along with the driving rockabilly guitars recall John Reis bands such as Rocket from the Crypt. Despite what you might be inferring from these words, the group is not based on a gimmick. This is band that knows and respects all of the genres they blend, a band that is aware of their predecessors with every action a nod and a wink to those that came before them. You get the sense that in one show you could request a Hank Williams III song as well as one by his grandfather and they would play each to the hilt.
“Help Me” is as straightforward a blues song as the Shack*Shakers can perform. On this track Wilkes gives the best screams I’ve ever heard in rock and roll. The sounds from his vocal chords are simply unearthly and embody the true spirit of the combination of blues and rock. Of course, at other times, Wilkes sounds like a cross between John Lee Hooker and Brak. I’m not kidding. At this point I feel that if I miss out on a chance to see the Shack*Shakers live I might not ever forgive myself.
“Fist Whistle Boogie” brings back some of the stand-up bass rockabilly that the Stray Cats were best known for. The addition of the harmonica gives it an extra something that Setzer and company were missing. As the album opened with “Agony Wagon,” it closes with a reprise called “Misery Train,” of course being a pun on “Mystery Train,” the song recorded and rerecorded umpteen times, most notably by Elvis Presley. “Agony Wagon” is then, in turn, a pun on “Misery Train.” Clever.
Wow, what an album! The live act of Th’ Legendary Shack*Shakers is indeed, as the name advertises, legendary. As I have not seen it yet, I have to rely on the words of people like Deke Dickerson, The Reverend Horton Heat, Hank Williams III, Jason Ringenberg, and one Jello Biafra who said that Col. J.D. Wilkes is “the last great Rock and Roll frontman.” I can tell you this, if the live show is even just a little better than the album, it’s gonna be one hell of a show!
The Reverend Horton Heat – The Full Custom Gospel Sounds Of
Hank Williams III – Risin’ Outlaw
Tom Waits – The Black Rider