Friday night was fantasy come-to-life with J.D. Wilkes and the Legendary Shack Shakers onstage at the brand newly opened, four-story City Winery in Washington D.C. With its inexpensive valet parking at a “city low” price of $10, you are in the door in no time and gazing up at the impressively elegant, and vast, new facility, with its vaulted ceilings, gleaming wood, and free wifi while you wait until your food comes, and before the bands start. For anyone who doubted that Washington D.C. has a thriving live music scene, the opening of this venue dispels that myth once and for all. With its extensive wine menu, delicious food, and four stories — and four stages — this place is destined to be as much of a popular thriller as its brethren in NYC, Nashville, and Chicago.
BR549’s Chuck Mead opened the night, and showed off some skilled guitar playing. The Shack Shakers, and J.D. Wilkes himself, were present in the room, listening to Mead’s set, and chatting breezily with fans who couldn’t resist pressing all around the magnetic Wilkes at the bar. Meanwhile, Mead was accomplishing the rare feat of fingerpicking the guitar while singing, and several of the crowd took explicit notice, with one fan remarking: “even Hendrix couldn’t do that.” Mead is currently involved with the musical Million Dollar Quartet which portrays the Sun Studio greats: Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
After Mead was finished, the crowd was looking on with anticipatory delight at the stage setup, which provided visual intrigue all on its own. For those of you who are new fans, you need to know that J.D. Wilkes is actually “Colonel J.D. Wilkes” of Paducah, Kentucky; and the gorgeous red banner with its crest attesting to that fact is hanging up onstage next to the equally wonderful red piano. This piano is red with a painted scene, is on wheels and has made the trip from Kentucky, it’s a 64 key Tom Thumb piano, Wilkes will later tell the audience. [We interviewed J.D. Wilkes last spring; if you’d like to read that, click any of these bolded words right here.] Atop the piano is another alluring object, an ornamental small open wooden box, which, we’ll soon find out, holds curious smaller brass and shiny wondrous instruments. The drum kit is set up so that drummer Preston Corn will be standing to play, and there’s the always fanciful stand-up bass awaiting Fuller Condon; and Gary Siperko’s waiting guitar is visually no slouch either.
For a little more context, again in case you are a new fan, J.D. Wilkes is a multi-media artist. His book The Vine That Ate the South is a southern legends thriller and he’s already working on the sequel. His recent album Fire Dream (Big Legal Mess) has received rave reviews [to read our review of this click any of these bolded words right here] and his band the Legendary Shack Shakers also recently released their After You’ve Gone (Last Chance Records) only last fall [to read about that one, click one of these bolded words here.] He also created the cover art for the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ new album Beasts of Burgundy (read about that by clicking bolded words right here.) At the merch table you can buy the book, some of the cds and albums, including a bluegrass banjo CD duet with Wilkes and the late Charlie Stamper.
When Wilkes and the Legendary Shack Shakers took the stage, it was in a flash of excitement with Washboard Sam song “Come On In,” and then Legendary Shack Shakers song “Sugar Baby” with Wilkes on banjo. Next up was “Dump Road Yodel” and there was some yodeling with fan participation; and at the end, Wilkes said in perfect comedic lockstep: “keep yodeling amongst yourselves, I have some work to do…” The crowd exploded when the band launched into LSS song “Hoboes Are My Heroes,” and clearly they were warmed up and fully engaged. At this point, Wilkes pulled out an odd harmonica with little horn extensions for “Redwing,” and after wow-ing everyone with that, there was one more banjo number, “Gipsy Valentine,” with Siperko’s smokin’ guitar licks, before Wilkes switched to piano with “Bible, Candle and Skull,” from both Pandelerium and Fire Dream. Then “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” (yes, by Bill Haley & His Comets) and Ruth Etting’s “All of Me.”
“Sing a Worried Song” was another clear fan favorite, from last fall’s LSS album, and this time the bass player used a bow to play while Wilkes remained at the piano. This song is really quite intoxicating, with lines like “the worried brow of mother earth, is endless furrows plowed in the dirt, everybody’s in the loam, laid out head to toe” with its perfectly apt ’30s-feel video, which you can watch right here:
Without missing a beat, Wilkes switched to harmonica for “Mud” while leaping to dance and promenade like Iggy Pop, and then another song from Fire Dream: “Moonbottle,” where Siperko riffed like mad on the guitar. This was followed by the title track “Fire Dream” which was wild, heart thumping, and frenetic, and with its opening lyric line “lithe undulations in the dead of the night,” is just all around, undeniably brilliant.
Wilkes is a natural dancer, exhibiting wild, impromptu dance moves in Kentucky barndance/Michael Jackson-esque style; in his respectable suit, at times pivoting maneuvers around his shiny oval belt buckle. His dance execution covers everything short of a moonwalk and is absolutely thrilling to watch. Some of these moments were captured in the photos, above. The stage had a smaller front part that extended into the crowd and Wilkes utilized it in grand fashion, stepping forward into people who obviously adored it, and him. The fans were clearly having a blast, people were clapping along, singing along, and dancing themselves.
At this point in the night, it was pure late-night, uninhibited celebration, with “Old Spur Line” and then Ella Fitzgerald’s “Who Walks In” and another obvious fan favorite, “Clodhopper,” with Wilkes on speed banjo. The fans were gyrating and reaching toward Wilkes for “Hip Shake,” while he sang cryptically like he was a distant auctioneer and then it was “CB Song” and “Swampblood.” And in the end, as the encore, an audience member requested “Lost Cause” from the LSS album AgriDustrial, which was highly uncivilized, riotous fun, and then, all too soon it seemed, the music had to stop. But the memory of this show is still undoubtedly fresh in the minds of all who attended. This show is an absolute must-see. It is one of the top shows you absolutely have to experience at least once, or a couple dozen times, in your life. It is, in a word, stunning. You’ll never forget it.
Wilkes and the Legendary Shack Shakers have plenty of touring on the horizon; and Wilkes throws a helluva party in late August if you’re planning your late summer festival/party/shindig route. He sells some killer merch, too. Check it all out, here. http://www.jdwilkes.com/