The Deliverance Banjo Boy done grown up, read some Flannery O’Connor, found Jesus, then got a gig as carnival barker. At least that’s what I thought the first time I happened upon Th’ Legendary Shack*Shakers, tearing it up at Slow Bar a few years back. Frontman J.D. Wilkes pranced around the stage like a meth-addled Pentecostal preacher, all fire and brimstone, taunting the front row of the audience, spewing sweat and spit, and writhing on the floor like a Bible Belt Iggy Pop.
All of these antics, coupled with Wilkes’ considerable wit, would have been entertainment enough. But then the band kicked into a greasy Chicago shuffle and the scrappy singer picked up a Green Bullet mic and proceeded to play some killin’ blues harmonica. And that’s what sets the Shack*Shakers apart from the posers and retro-obsessed purists who are so prevalent in the world of rockabilly. The band take their music every bit as seriously as their show, and their sound is too far-reaching to be contained by such a narrow label.
These are heady times for the Shack*Shakers: they’ve just returned after a five-week European tour, opening for Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant; their new CD Pandelirium, featuring guests Jello Biafra and Reverend Horton Heat, is slated for a February release; and they’re gearing up for a New Year’s Eve extravaganza at Mercy Lounge.
The Plant tour came about by fortuitous circumstances set into motion during one of the Shack*Shakers’ trips overseas. “Robert’s son Logan Plant had a band,” Wilkes explains, “and was touring Europe with Robert’s entourage—managers, soundman, etc.—so the whole Robert Plant crew discovered us when Logan did. We befriended one another. It was one of those great moments where stars align. And from there it was all word of mouth leading back to Robert, who decided to give us a shot at South by Southwest. He was tired of the dreary, postmodern art-damaged stuff that was going on before him, so he thought he’d inject a little life into it and invite us along.”
Opening shows for someone of Plant’s stature is a tall order, particularly when the crowd has never heard of you, but Wilkes says the response was, for the most part, quite positive. “I think the only stinker was the first night in Wolverhampton, which is Robert’s hometown, where they have this incredulous, ‘whaddya got?’ attitude. Afterward Robert asked us, ‘Are you guys holding back? Are you trying to be too respectful to my crowd?’ And Mark [Robertson, the Shack*Shakers’ bass player] said, ‘Well, maybe.’ And Robert goes, ‘Don’t.’ We had been trying to lean more heavily on the blues, stuff that might be more accessible. The second show in Wolverhampton went off gangbusters.”
There were some memorable post-show moments too. “We ended up buddying up with Robert’s crew,” Wilkes says. “We just got along—they were just kind of blue-collar slobs, like us. After one of our best sets, in Dublin, we went to some punk rock club, with the Plant crew in tow. There was a punk band, kind of like The Pogues, who had just finished, and they were backstage, and someone said, ‘Hey, you oughta get up there.’ So we got up onstage…while someone else ran to get permission. It was off the hook. We just blew it out. The place went crazy. It was probably the most fun we had.”
Another special moment had to be experienced secondhand. Roy, who’s been Robert Plant’s soundman for a couple decades, told the band that a certain musician at their London show had said they reminded him of “a young Yardbirds-meets-The Sex Pistols” (a pretty accurate description). It was Jeff Beck, the former Yardbirds guitarist.
Now back on their home turf, Wilkes and his bandmates are gearing up for their New Year’s Eve show, which also features Boston’s Reverend Glasseye (who also walk the salvation/damnation line, though from a klezmer-cabaret perspective) and Gypsyville (described as “the belly-dancing, fire-eating alter ego of Panty Raid”). Then they take January off before hitting the road again in support of Pandelirium.
Wilkes describes the new record, their second release for Yep Roc, as a more hard-hitting rock record. “It still has the eccentricities, the kind of carnival circus overtones,” Wilkes says. “More so on this one, even, but we didn’t allow the eccentric guest players and musical instruments to take over and turn it into something esoteric.
“Jello [Biafra] is on the first few tracks, doing backup singing, making noises. You can totally tell it’s him. He’s in the same mode as when he was singing ‘Rawhide.’ He’s got this yodel thing happening in the background, it’s perfect. He’s a big fan of country music, and, in a sort of disturbing way, he pays homage to it, and I think he likes the Shack*Shakers for that same reason.”
There’s an amusing video clip on the Shack*Shakers’ website, filmed for a German student TV show while the band was playing a club in Bremen a couple years back. “We’re not possessed by the devil,” Wilkes explains to the film crew. “We’re exorcising. Remember The Exorcist? We’re pushing him out, exorcising him, because the devil’s in all of us, and we’ve gotta push him out.
“Thank God I have a forum and a band where I can do that,” he continues, utterly straight-faced. “ ’Cause if I didn’t do that every night, I’d probably be a serial killer.” Fortunately for Wilkes (and the rest of the civilized world), his forum for exorcising his demons looks secure for a while.