By John T. Davis
Special to the American-Statesman
Austin native Alejandro Rose-Garcia may perform as Shakey Graves, but there was nothing shaky or tentative about his inaugural appearance on “Austin City Limits” Wednesday night. Not all of his music was my personal cup of tea, but Graves revealed himself (not for the first time) as an assured performer seemingly at ease being front and center on the most famous televised music series on the planet.
Playing solo, or with minimal accompaniment (two musicians and his ever-present suitcase kick drum), Graves divvied up his 13-song set between his 2011 debut “Roll the Bones” and last year’s “And the War Came.” As someone who had encountered Graves only a couple of times before in his one-man-band persona, I was surprised at the aggressive (no other word for it, really) deliberate distortion and sonic effects Graves and his bandmates injected into songs such as “Pansy Waltz,” “Family and Genus” and “Built to Roam.” It wasn’t off-putting, exactly, but I found it distracting, especially when Graves practically had to bellow to make himself heard over the roar.
I thought he hit closer to his sweet spot in the quieter, relatively more intimate parts of the program. “Tomorrow” (written, he said, “when I was about 16 and pretty sure I had it together, and especially had that girl thing kind of covered”) was elegant and refreshingly unadorned, while “Chinatown” (“My mom requested this song”) had an appealingly loopy, almost vaudeville sort of groove. Graves got a nice call-and-response going on the bluesy “Proper Fence,” and his encore numbers, “Hard Wired” and “Late July,” featured lots of fleetly adept fingerpicking that ebbed and flowed as the melody dictated.
Especially welcome was guest vocalist Carson McHone, whose turn on “Dearly Departed” evoked memories of Emmylou Harris dueting with Bob Dylan in the latter’s “Desire” era. She and Graves enjoyed an easy onstage camaraderie that begs for more collaboration.
One of the most appealing aspects of his performance was Graves’ refusal to be daunted by the national audience behind the cameras (he acted at Austin High and has had bit parts in movies and on TV). He gave several endearing shout-outs to friends, family and his hometown, and he wasn’t above goofing around a bit, injecting some surf guitar into the intro of “Where A Boy Once Stood.” He pulled a kazoo out of his pocket during “Chinatown,” thus forever settling the question of whether one can look cool playing guitar and a kazoo on television (the answer, emphatically, is no).
Graves has charisma to burn and a left-of-center musical sensibility that sets him apart. “Austin City Limits” may be his biggest venue yet, but one suspects it’s just a way station, not a summit.