Spitting and nit-eating rockabilly lunacy at Shack Shakers’ show

by Brian Clarey

This could be the best show we’ve had yet, it’s gonna be completely and totally off the hook’… fo’ shizzle.

‘— Pete Schroth, the Flying Anvil

It takes a lot to get me out of the house on a Sunday night: a free meal, an urgent request from a friend in need, a fire’… things like that.

Add to the list a strongly-worded press release from my pal Pete Schroth, owner of the Green Bean and, with partner Andrew Dudek, the Flying Anvil. When I read this one I set my DVR (so as not to miss my shows) and made plans to be out at the tail end of the week.

‘“Was it too much?’” Pete asks from behind the bar at the Anvil. He’s in a red Clash T-shirt and he’s clearly pumped ‘— it’s a triple bill tonight featuring local heroes the Tremors followed by the Dex Romweber Duo, a brother-sister rock act that was possibly the inspiration for the White Stripes ‘— Jack White himself calls Dex ‘“a huge influence.’”

And these two acts alone constitute a pretty damn good show. But after they’re done and the room has worked up a pretty good lather, headliners the Legendary Shack Shakers take the wide stage at the front of the Anvil’s cavernous music hall as a nearly full moon looked down like a lazy eye.

They had played in Kill Devil Hills the night before and the Greensboro club booked them as one of those pass-through deals that this town relies on to beef up the music calendar.

If they’re road weary, they don’t show it.

At first blush the band looks like many other punkabilly, psycho-rock bands ‘— hollow-body Strats, a shiny red drum kit with two pedal bass drums and a monstrous stand-up bass guitar. But once they started to play with a hard, sustained riff, I realized I had never before seen anything like it.

The band, which started three years ago and bills itself as ‘“American Gothic,’” is a four-piece hailing from across the South with three CDs to their credit: Cockadoodledon’t, Believe and Pandelerium, their latest effort. And they bring together the best elements of punk and rockabilly with small doses each of speed metal, raunchy blues, surf guitar and, believe it or not, polka.

On stage at the Anvil they sound loud and dangerous; the sound barrels through hypercharged amps and is rendered through over-the-top distortion and unforgiving brick into something both hard and fuzzy, like a wolverine caught in a heavy velvet bag.

But more than the sound, it is frontman JD Wilkes who catches and holds the crowd’s attention.

The rail-thin psychopath’s stage persona has been likened to that of Iggy Pop, Tom Waits and Jerry Lee Lewis (he even quotes the Killer towards the end of the set), but comparisons simply don’t do this guy justice.

Minutes into the set he’s flung his suspenders over a ceiling girder, yanked off his shirt and popped a dancing fan on the head with his fist. He expends enough energy in the first three 90-second songs to blow a fuse.

He’s a dervish. A berserker. There’s only one way to put it: The guy is a fucking lunatic.

He kicks at the fans close to the stage. He shakes his skinny ass. He tweaks his nipples and dances like a Cossack. He blows his harp through an old ham radio microphone, flips the harmonica in his hands and kicks it like a hacky-sack. He sings with the old mic pressed to his throat and then stuffs it in his pants. He moonwalks and does a handspring. He licks his finger and touches his butt. He pretends to pick nits off a woman’s head and eat them. He spits on the crowd, flings water at them, whips them with the microphone cord and’… Jesus’… I think he just bit a guy. Oh, and he flips us all off with both hands.

He does everything short of crapping himself, and at the end of the 40-minute set he flings confetti all over the stage.

The music is everything it should be: fast, angry and loud. And though much of the lyrics, harp work and guitar riffs are impossible to discern, either due to the auditory challenges the room presents or perhaps by design, the work is incredibly articulate, bringing forth messages of anger, reckless abandon, fast and hard living and a deep appreciation for the fans (who, by the way, cheer wildly when he peppers them with spittle or reaches out and grabs them).

Like I say, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

And after the encore set, which includes a very fast polka, frontman JD Wilkes sits over by the merch table drenched in sweat and wrapped in a towel while the Sunday Anvil patrons filter slowly out the doors.

After his cooldown he’ll play an informal set on his harp, much more mellow, and then take a turn on the huge standup bass, revealing the reams of talent behind his manic stage presence.

But make no mistake: This guy is totally off the hook. Fo’ shizzle.

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