Shakey Graves at The Phoenix

Photographs by Fernando Paiz. 

After seeing Donovan Woods play a near-empty Drake Hotel earlier this year (then opening for Phox), it was nice to walk in on him playing to a much bigger crowd. Well, it was nice in sensing an appreciation for folk music – but with the larger crowd came the louder conversations. 

The sold-out, chatty Phoenix audience easily drowned out Woods’ otherwise bumbling, self-deprecating banter. He was aware of this divide, too, telling the crowd at one point: “This is a quiet one. So if we’re going to listen to this one, this is it.” No matter – those that were paying attention were treated to an Ontario talent with a strong, melodic voice and a steady guitar. He’s an endearing talent and it was nice to see him play a full room.

If it seemed difficult to quiet down a large audience with just a guitar and voice though, Shakey Graves soon came on stage to prove it could be done.

Greeting the crowd with an electric-acoustic guitar and a simple “Hey everybody, what’s up?” would set the tone for the night – Alejandro Rose-Garcia, the man behind the Shakey Graves moniker, seemingly at ease and so very down-to-earth. Anchoring his alt-country, dipped in blues performance was his soulful, graveled voice: the one-man show starting the night sans-percussion, but soon kicking into it with a literal stomp of his feet.

Keeping stage and lighting design to a minimal, Rose-Garcia relied on talent alone to hold him through the set. And that talent is something he possesses in spades, matched by equal parts sincerity and a surprising effortlessness to what he’s doing. It’s a trifecta you don’t see all that often – particularly not in artists a couple of albums deep. Usually, by that point, they’ve either never had it to begin with or have already grown egos too big to contain that balance. Thankfully, Shakey Graves has retained it so far.

Touring October’s “And The War Came”, Rose-Garcia proved naturally adept at playing a crowd, inciting a call-and-response halfway through second song “Grim Reaper” and deftly delivering smart wordplay with lines like: “If you value your life, stay off the drugs / If you value the drugs, stay off the map / If you value maps, you better travel son / If you don’t want to travel, than you better run” on “Word of Mouth”. 

The set was surprisingly free of monotone moments, too – an all-too-real danger with any solo act. It helped that Rose-Garcia built his set up to introduce his friend, Boo, on stage. Boo took a seat behind a proper drum set, helping to add heft to the procession. 

While the added drums gave the set much more of a rock n’ roll feel, the addition unfortunately meant some loss of clarity to Shakey Graves’ otherwise clean-sounding set. It was worth the trade-off, however, the two musicians clearly comfortable with one another and having a good time at their respective instruments. Even a broken guitar string couldn’t halt the set’s momentum, Rose-Garcia improvising through an extended (and coincidentally guitar-driven) ending before switching off with another guitar on stage.

Older material such as “Tomorrow” was certainly more plodding than the newer offerings, Rose-Garcia dedicating it to “the little 16-year-old shit head that lives in all of us.” That was about the peak of the country offerings that it got all night for the Austin-based musician and it helped give some context to the cowboy hat spotted in the crowd, sharing elbowroom with women with dreadlocked hair and guys in business clothes.

Standout track “Roll the Bones” (and the title of his 2011 album) earned a sing along from the crowd, as did new album single “Dearly Departed” – the audience stepping in on handclaps and vocals in lieu of opener Esmé Patterson’s absence. Rose-Garcia had called her out on stage earlier in the night and she had obliged for two tracks, but then disappeared into the back vortex of the venue despite further calls. The end result of an off-key crowd delivering her harmonies probably wasn’t what Shakey Graves was ultimately going for, but it was still a nice sense of closure to see everyone coming together to belt out their lungs. A two-song encore followed, helping to wrap up the hour-and-40-minute set.

Rose-Garcia’s set at the Phoenix showed he’s retained his lyricism, added instrumental complexity, and furthered his stage presence. There’s a night-and-day difference between his old and new material – but that doesn’t mean either one outshines the other. It just shows his progress so far, and a glimpse of the many (good) things to come. 

It was an impressive showing from an artist bound to win over the blues and country fans. He’s got a big voice, he knows how to use it, and he does it so very well.