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?Treulogizing? the Gothic South

A review of The Tentshow Trilogy, consisting of Believe, Pandelirium and Swampblood
(Yep Roc Records)

Open the flap of Th' Legendary Shack Shakers' Believe CD and you find a picture of J.D. Wilkes, David Lee and Mark Robertson on the steps of a church, each white door emblazoned with a cross. It is a scene reeking of the South, suspenders and rolled up sleeves and casual but formal white shirts and, of course, Wilkes' white socks. It could be a scene straight out of Mississippi's Burning, with all of its intensity and negative connotations. To Wilkes, though, it is a reflection of the True South, a land slowly disappearing, replaced by a much more sinister South, an homogenous South. A Corporate South.

Wilkes would take the Gothic South to the Corporate South anyday. ?The Southern Gothic,? he explained in a recent interview, ?is all counter to the original Goth thing where the kids dress up in the stripey clothes and reflect Beetlejuice. That is a cartoon-ish version of like a medieval fantasy. That is not what we are. What that is based on, originally, is a belief that there is beauty to be found in the grotesque, in the dark and disturbing. That is kind of what the Southern Gothic thing is, but rather than it being Frankenstein and werewolves, it is slavery and inequity and hellfire-and-brimstone religion. Out of some of those edgy and dark experiences grows something great and wondrous and worthy of celebration.?

Wilkes would more than likely not include the Shakers' The Tentshow Trilogy among the great and wondrous, out of humility if nothing else, but he might be wrong. The Trilogy, comprised of Believe (2004), Pandelirium (2006), and Swampblood (2007), is an amazing work full of everything we identify with the South and yet find repugnant. Or is it? Perhaps, if you take Wilkes at his word, it is one of only a handful of works which really gets it right. Tossing aside political correctness and the views of The Media, Wilkes might have gone for Truth's jugular vein, looking at the South through the eyes of the unbiased, or at least as close as he could come, being from Paducah and all. With Truth in mind, Wilkes and Th' Legendary Shack Shakers have presented musical portraits which can hardly be denied. That is, if you Believe.

From the opening track, you know that the Shakers are onto something a little different. Agony Wagon, with train whistle beginning, kickstarts the album like a cross between a Bar Mitzvah and a scene from ?Bonanza?, Duane Eddy guitar supplying solos over a klezmer/gypsy mix and clarinet thrown in for good measure. So the ride begins. Creek Cats sounds tame before what is to come, shuffling polka beat driving a Beefheart-sounding entity. Wilkes falls into vox mania on Where's the Devil... When You Need Him?, channeling voice through a distortion box or some such magical device, breaking out only on the chorus, where he powers through to the next verse. Piss and Vinegar has a bit of funk in there somewhere, Mark Robertson giving up his treasured standup for a Strap-On Electric Bass, as they list in the liner notes. Solid rockin' blues this is, Nick Kane emulating the overamped rhythm guitar of Jr. Walker's Shotgun. Wilkes pulls out his not-so-secret weapon here, the mouth harp, and makes it wail. And it goes on and on, styles ranging from blues to rockabilly to country to hard rock to gypsy and klezmer and beyond. On some songs, they utilize them all and it makes you wonder how far they could go. The titles? County of Graves, All My Life To Kill, Cussin' In Tongues, Bible Cyst and so forth, every one of them packed front to back with Wilkes' sometimes disturbing and always point-on lyrics. They even throw in a blues jam on Fistwhistle Boogie, an instrumental featuring Wilkes on, what else, the fistwhistle (on which he plain kicks ass).

The madness continues on 2006's Pandelirium, the Shakers' up-tempo opening track Ichabod! a manic Russian hat dance worthy of The Ed Sullivan Show and complete with Russkie ?hey?s and maniacal laughs. It ends in (what else?) a typewriter lead-in to South Electric Eyes, something else altogether, perhaps a demented Seven Dwarfs' eye view of southern politics, past and present. From there, it's another ride through Wilkes' South, keying on the weird and the almost occult, the prejudices and the Truth. Musically, it is all over the place and adventurous as hell, from the the rockin' blues of Somethin' In the Water (The Union Carbide Blues) (ten-to-one you already know what that is about) to the Tex-Czech mix of Iron Lung Oompah and its ?Gilligan's Island? vocals to the cartoon-ish sound of Monkey On the Doghouse and its sinister, not so hidden message. Perhaps this is Wilkes and band's tribute to the circus aspect of The South. Only Wilkes knows.

Swampblood rounds out the Trilogy. Written in virtual soundtrack form, it wraps an intro and outro around the album's four ?real? songs, those standing out as single entities. Lightly plucked banjo and monk-like background chant lead into a lighter-than-Shakers'-normal Old Spur Line, shuffling rhythm carrying light rhythm and blues into a Spaghetti Western break. Hellwater is swamp rock of a sort, choogling guitar and electric piano beneath a strangely subdued Wilkes vocal. Back to the circus with Easter Flesh, guitar having that curious but apt Duane Eddy edge. Then, there is the coup de resistance, Swampblood, which may be used in an upcoming HBO presentation. A classic blues rocker with a one-chord organ and absolutely magical guitar behind Wilkes' smokin' mouth harp and vocals. This would have hit written all over it if the world had any class (which it doesn't), but those in the South will know. The outro of ?dusk? finishes the first part of the album, a 17-second electronic collage. Then, the fun begins--- ten short and lively tracks laid out in quick succession, each with its own sound and feel and important to the message. Gospel, country, old-timey, swing and other influences tap out Born Again Again, Jimblyleg Man, Angel Lust and Preachin' At Traffic, to name a few, Wilkes pulling out the stops and fleshing out the story, capping the whole thing off with a pause before taking Bright Sunny South, the theme in ?dawn?, into the sunset.

This is no fluke, this ?treulogy?. Wilkes is using his trilogy to eulogize a South he dearly loves. It is more about Truth than most will realize. Wilkes has a different vision. You might even call him a visionary, what with his documentary Seven Signs now completed. If you hold The Tentshow Trilogy up next to the screen, you will get a better picture of what he is trying to accomplish here. Even if you don't get it, this is some of the most adventurous and creative music out there.

And don't think that the rest of the Shakers are just along for the ride. Mark Robertson has been with Wilkes for nigh on seven years and works a studio along with co-producing the Shakers and shortening his right arm visibly by slapping the upright bass like a madman. David Lee is fast becoming a guitar legend of sorts, having worked with Gretsch to create the Gretsch 6136DL, a guitar he obviously loves to play. Thus far, only one is in existence, though plans are to market thirty before deciding whether to continue production. They aren't cheap. And Brett Whitacre, well, he's just itching for the road. The Shakers kidnapped him from his previous band, Chicago power-punkers The Saps, but the split was totally amicable. Brett's brother is now The Saps' drummer and it is all in the family.

Th' Legendary Shack Shakers started out as Those Legendary Shack Shakers, by the way. Steeped in rockabilly (Wilkes refers to it as ?Rockabilly 101?), their one album, Hunker Down, captured the genre nicely. Then it was The Legendary Shack Shakers, whose Cockadoodledon't album supplied the rockin' track (CB Song) used on one of Geico's classic commercials--- the one in which the gecko drives a toy sports car into a normal sized parking spot. In that case, the music made the ad.

The Tentshow Trilogy, though, is by Th' Legendary Shack Shakers, in its present form for a couple of years now. These guys love playing together. All four call it ?fun?. Maybe it is, but it's ?fun? that takes ten pounds off you whenever you play. I wish I had their water concession. I'd be a rich man.

Frank Gutch Jr.

Ed. Note: This review was written a couple of years ago and David Lee has since exited the band. At this time, he is working on forming his own group, tentatively named The David Lee Band. We wish him luck.