Sunday, May 5, 2024

River Shook & the Apocalyptic Self-Care of Honest Lyrics & Live Music

Sarah Shook & the Disarmers
Nicolette & the Nobodies
Club Cafe, Pittsburgh
May 4, 2024

“I write songs, so I don’t kill myself.” - River Shook 
(as said to Jason Earle on the Marinade podcast in 2023)

Damn, friends, if we can just be here and think about, this kind of honesty! 

Let’s be clear about why we make and crave and need and love all the wickedly unfiltered art as self-care and survival. We write (or paint or sculpt or scream), so we don’t die, if this is not the punk rock apocalyptic poetics of authentic self-love!
Maybe sometimes people think of “self-care” as some kind of passive pampering, but for the neurodivergent poet-types who remain engaged with the realities of an at-times radically uncaring world, self-care is legit holistic resistance. That kind of delicious defiance is what I encounter with River Shook and fellow travelers in the DIY and independent edges of our current folk music revival. 

River Shook and their band “Sarah Shook and the Disarmers” are touring to support a phenomenal new record, and they play a fierce outlaw fusion that fits well with its many siblings in the currently crushing glory of our alt-country renaissance. Yet when inhaled as its own vulnerable voice, this music shakes our collective core with its singular vision, as we simply are overwhelmed and appreciative of face-melted and soul-saturated sonic fumes. 

While without apology a part of the wildly flowering alt-country scene, this is also a rock band, and seeing this five-piece live, this is a rock show. Shades of cowpunk, garage, and shimmering subtle distortion move us to our inner parts with an honest, in-yer-face full force delivery of dueling guitars and steel guitar, with drums and bass anchoring the North Carolina twang in a pure rock revelry. This is music that lights a lineage to the bastard future where the descendants of Uncle Tupelo and Bikini Kill also go to therapy and put down the fire-water that fueled the earliest Sarah Shook tracks. 

River Shook and band blazed through more than 20 songs in less than 90 minutes, and as with so many shows, I wasn’t ready for it to end. As a professed introvert, River banters so briefly, compared to some artists whose between-song comic stories are longer than the songs. So I took it to heart that they told us the backstory on one of my top bangers from the new album. River mentions walking regularly as part of their daily coping (as is also true for me), and I was thrilled to learn that the origin of the song “Stone Door” come from one of my favorite hikes among many amazing hikes in my home of rural middle Tennessee.   

It’s like I can feel all of River Shook’s influences unfolding on the barroom floor like the grail, like the eternal analog and card-catalog made of human spit and grit. But then I read in an interview how River readily rejected the standard-operating “influences” plug that so pleases music writers, saying simply of the people they are sometimes compared to: “I honestly haven’t recognized any of them.” 

After the Pittsburgh show, I am telling the Disarmers merch-person and Nicolette Hoang, the Vietnamese-Canadian lead singer of the opening band Nicolette & the Nobodies, how both acts brought some of that early cowpunk energy, that the much younger me adored in Lone Justice, and they all collectively admit they have never listened to Lone Justice or Maria McKee. But Nicolette and her shredding lead guitarist Ian Bain said they would listen to Lone Justice when driving to the next show. I really hope they do. 

From the meticulously-framed design of their brand-new album cover, Nicolette and the Nobodies intentionally invoke 1970s country and artists like Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette. Their set brought all those respectfully vintage vibes in their originals, but then even moreso, in their cover of “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” that conjured both the versions by Aretha Franklin and the Flying Burrito Brothers in perfect measure.  

Of all the joys and pleasures of seriously following multiple artists in a burgeoning subculture, sometimes you get to see such stunningly talented folks in a relatively tiny venue. I think of course of the OG Basement in Nashville, where I have been attending shows on-and-off for 20 years. 

So stepping into the Club Cafe in Pittsburgh, I am immediately wowed and going “what-the-what" by how intimate a show this is going to be. Only wanting the best for these artists, only wanting others to experience what you get to experience, the effort to travel to gigs is rewarded by seeing something so strong, that you can maybe one day say, you saw it when. But just being into this moment, you are seeing fiercely-called artists willing to drive long distances and leaving absolutely everything on the stage. 

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