Once in a great while a musician comes around with such a grasp on the full spectrum of possibilities music has to offer that it's clear he's working with a full box of 64 crayon colors.
Shakey Graves, the stage name of Austin-based singer-songwriter-actor Alejandro Rose-Garcia, gave that kind of demonstration Monday at the first of his two-night run of shows this week at the El Rey Theatre.
Working solo and then in various permutations with one, two or three band mates (including drummer Chris Boosahda, who produced Graves' new album), Graves employed a masterful complement not just of melody and harmony but of varied tempo, dynamic range, vocal and instrumental color and shading. His phrasing, combined with his ability to attack and then embrace silence, was the roots-music equivalent of a full orchestra.
Graves/Rose-Garcia has been open in acknowledging the impact on his act that his years pursuing acting in Los Angeles have played, as well as the lessons he drew from seeing the way one-man band Bob Log III incorporated "performance variables" to sustain an audience's interest.
He just released "And the War Came," the follow-up to his 2011 self-produced indie album, "Roll the Bones." He solidified that album's buzz with lauded appearances in high-profile gigs at the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, as well as a dynamic appearance earlier this year at the Stagecoach Country Music Festival in Indio.
He puts this all to use in service of his poetic lyrics, often impressionistic scenarios that broach a broad swath of life experience—love and romance, the search for identity, self-doubt, fear and coming to terms with bitter realities of moving from carefree adolescence into full-blown adulthood.
Often it's not immediately clear where Graves is heading in a given song, and that uncertainty usually makes the journey all the more intriguing.
"Dearly Departed," one of several songs from the new album he included Monday, is a compelling rumination on the echoes of love interrupted—whether by death, divorce or other circumstance isn't certain. "I hear you call my name but no one is there," he sang, "except a feeling in the air."
Perhaps even more distinctive than his lyrics, however, is the way he arranges and presents them to embody that "feeling in the air." At the outset of the show, he worked solo, just an acoustic or electric guitar accompanying his voice, along with the throwback Rube Goldberg kick drum he's fashioned out of an old pink suitcase and that he triggers with a foot pedal.
He works tempos with painterly detail, accelerating as emotions heighten, decelerating to provide a breath of relaxation. He finger-picks delicate passages with the dexterity of an accomplished folkie; other times he strums and bashes with the abandon of a bona fide punk rocker to generate raw fury. He'll move at breakneck pace while spinning out a verse, then abruptly stop before shifting into a chorus.
At one point, he asked for a volunteer from the audience for help on one number, and up came what appeared to be an enthusiastic fan seemingly well-versed enough to pick up a guitar. As it happens, it was guitarist Patrick O'Connor, who regularly plays with Graves, but was folded into Monday's performance through a canny bit of theatricality.
“If you come around, I hope you stay the whole damn night,” he sang in “If Not For You,” a sentiment that also seems fully descriptive of the kind of uncommonly inventive performance Graves delivered.