Photo by Mandy Pichler
Wedged in the middle of a packed and rowdy crowd at the historic Thalia Hall in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, it soon became apparent that Shakey Graves has accumulated somewhat of a cult following since his days of headlining the much smaller Schuba’s Tavern a few miles north. Commanding the crowd at the second of two sold-out shows at the venue, Austin-bred Shakey—born Alejandro Rose-Garcia—proved not only that he is worthy of the praise, but that he’s likely to graduate to even bigger locations the next time he’s in town.
After an energetic set from Nashville country rockstars Those Darlins, the smoky stage disappeared behind two plush, black curtains and a single spotlight. Shortly after, Shakey abruptly appeared in front of the velvet drapes donning a black leather jacket, a simple white t-shirt and a baseball cap. Since he spent the first part of his career as one-man band, Shakey was noticeably comfortable with nothing but his guitar, kick drum and tambourine as he launched into the breezy strums of “The Donor Blues.” Despite the tall ceilings and open layout of the venue, he managed to make the onset of the show—broken up by his starry-eyed storytelling—feel like a small, intimate gathering rather than a crowded, sold-out show. “You have to strike while the iron’s hot,” was one of the many pieces of advice he offered between songs, advising that whether its finances, love or weed you seek, the opportunity won’t wait for you to come back in an hour.
The curtains soon pulled back to reveal his signature skull backdrop highlighted by an ominous red light, a Texas flag and his bandmates, guitarist/bassist Patrick O’Connor and drummer Chris Boosahda. The appearance of the eerie scene was appropriately greeted by the raw and melancholy rocking-to-picking intro of “The Perfect Parts.” Evidently empowered by his on-stage backup, Shakey took on a new form as he played through the rougher songs, jumping and thrashing around. At the beginning of the show, he mentioned that he’d broken his guitar the night before and it was easy to see how that might have happened.
The majority of the setlist was comprised of tunes from 2014’s And the War Came. While several of the duets were missing the sweet and distinct sounds of ex-Paper Bird member Esmé Patterson, the dedicated crowd did its best to fill in the holes on numbers like “Big Time Nashville Star,” which Shakey took on alone on the stage. Other highlights included “Pansy Waltz,” which played out more like an Irish drinking song in a local dive bar with the crowd on backup vocals, and “Only Son,” which brought Boosahda out from behind his drum and onto bass. “This guy just told me to keep Austin weird,” Shakey laughed between songs. “Keep yourself weird!” he yelled back to the man in the front row.
The familiar and upbeat drum intro of “Dearly Departed” was extended, getting the crowd more than onboard with arguably the most well-known Shakey Graves song as the audience contributed to everything from the haunting “oohs” to the playful banter found on the studio track. Shakey then threw in one more toe-tapping favorite, “Family and Genus,” before leaving the stage and the desperate-for-more crowd. He then returned to the stage for the intricate fingerpicking and soft vocals of “Chinatown” and ended the show how he started it: just him, his guitar, some comic relief and a casual stance and stare that almost made you forget he just sold-out two shows in Chicago.