While the pews that once packed Mr. Smalls are long gone, Mass was in session on Friday, July 18 in the old Catholic church-turned-music venue. Sweaty bodies swayed, arms raised to the rafters, as the sold-out crowd received the service, the words falling upon them from on high.
"It's a constant fucking and being fucked," Shakey Graves preached. Life, he said, is too short to worry about those you've wronged.
Admittedly, Shakey's no great philosopher. "I'm chock full of horrible advice," he said. But from the moment he stepped on stage, backed by two glowing Edison bulbs and a marquee sign fit for the front of a two-pump roadside gas station, the audience was enraptured.
Streets of Laredo, a fun five-piece outfit with roots in Brooklyn and New Zealand, prepared the congregation with a blend of upbeat summery jams and subtle near-ballads. Thumping synth bass meshed with punchy horns and simple melodies summoned a kind of "windows down on a sunny day" sensation on their up-tempo tunes. The same formula, when applied to the slower songs, fell flat.
Once the Streets of Laredo had cleared, Alejandro Rose-Garcia, better known as Shakey Graves, emerged alone. He smiled and strutted around the smoke-filled stage, strumming his guitar. He created loops with his instrument and jumped from stage left to center in a single, twisting bound. Suddenly, with a stick hanging from his mouth like a stogie, he was behind the drums, pounding on floor toms that shook the building. The man was everywhere. And he was just warming up.
Without uttering a single word, he had the audience in worship. When he finally did begin to sing, his Southern charm and earnest lyrics drove home his universal magnetism. Shakey proselytized and each sentiment was met with an unspoken "amen."
He was eventually joined by a bassist, drummer and another guitarist, but somehow the addition of more musicians didn't add up to more sound. Shakey's one-man band was as just powerful as the quartet, though it didn't reach the same grizzly, gnarled depths. Solos and jam sessions moved deftly into hard rock territory before sweeping swiftly back into Americana.
The audience, imbued with the holy spirit of too much PBR, spat back every lyric to "The Perfect Parts" and clapped in perfect time to "Dearly Departed." Each song was spliced with sermons. Loving your hometown. Being kind when you can. The thrill of a Nissan Maxima. Shakey covered it all, each tune blending seamlessly into the next. The music may have lacked diversity, only drifting away from the familiar for those brief genre-bending jams but hey, if it ain't broke, right?
The night ended after an encore on a resounding major chord, filling the sacred space with one last jolt of hope and excitement. Shakey's flock poured from the church onto the streets of Millvale renewed. Hallelujah.