Shea brings roots sound back to isles
BY ELIZABETH KIESZKOWSKI / firstname.lastname@example.org
Rick Shea’s music tends to feel handed down and a little sad in a way you can admire, like a polished shot glass passed on from days gone by.
With a band and as a solo and supporting musician, he’s carried the torch for roots music across the country and to far parts of the world, appealing to fans of country, bluegrass, folk and blues.
THE RICK SHEA BAND
» 8 p.m. today, Hawaiian Brian’s, 1680 Kapiolani Blvd.
» 8 p.m. Saturday, with the Joe Green Band, Surfer, the Bar, Turtle Bay Resort
» Cost: $30, $25 in advance
» Tickets: www.brownpapertickets.com, 800-838-3006
At heart he’s a storyteller with an affection for tales that never really go out of date, despite their vintage sheen.
A frequent headliner in Hawaii who included a twangy “The Haleiwa Shuffle” on his 2009 album “Shelter Valley Blues,” his latest, Shea’s back, playing with a band of Hawaii musicians this weekend for shows at Hawaiian Brian’s and Surfer, the Bar.
“I’m just getting started on a new album,” Shea said. “In August and September I’ve been working on a few basic tracks. I have a home studio, so I do a lot of the work here.”
It’s too early, he said, to know if he can pin down a theme for the album, but he does know it will include a couple of acoustic songs, as well as fully electrified pieces with his band.
Shea has always told or translated stories of yearning, searching and losing, and this album doesn’t change that. But there’s a difference in what he’s doing this time around: “The songs are coming more from personal experience,” he said.
The sound of the American West informs Shea’s songwriting, from the Bakersfield sound of country great Buck Owens to Tex-Mex, honky-tonk and yodeling country classics.
“What I grew up with was folk music — Woody Guthrie, even Chuck Berry, musicians who tell a story,” he said. “That’s what got me excited when I was young. The blues and old folk music, hillbilly music. That’s certainly the roots of what I do.”
He grew up in and around the sprawling Southern California city of San Bernadino, at a time when live, honky-tonk music was common in the bars on the strip, and started playing in bands while still in high school.
“Because I played pretty good, I guess, I fell into it,” he said. “I found I could make a living at it. … I was a lot of times the youngest in the band, so I got introduced to a lot of it just playing in those places. Somebody would show up and tell you the song and name a key and expect you to play it.”
It could be rough in those days, but Shea said he learned that if you went looking for trouble, you could find it — and if you didn’t, you might avoid it.
These days Shea is more likely to play at festivals and in locations where no punches are being thrown, occasionally giving guitar and songwriting workshops, as he did in Ireland this summer.
He’s handing out affirmations now, but when he started out, he said, he was “shy” and “trying to figure out everything on my own.”
His “trial-and-error” method didn’t turn out that badly. He’s been recording for more than 20 years, and journeyed with fellow roots traveler Dave Alvin of The Blasters for a few years, until 2004, when he struck out on his own.
Shea paired up with two different kinds of musicians for two records released in 2003: “Our Shangri-LA,” a widely praised album of rousing honky-tonk duets with Patty Booker; and “Trouble and Me,” an exuberant blend of Appalachian, Cajun and Western styles with fiddler Brantley Kearns.
Since then Shea’s solo albums “Bound for Trouble” (2005) and “Shelter Valley Blues” have continued to explore folk and Western themes.
“I do try to tell American stories,” he said — many with a classic theme of journeys taken, or strangers in a strange land.
“I love a story that seems to be set in another time,” he said. “Maybe an older time. … I think the stories about what people are going through continue to stay the same.”
Shea said he was struck by something he read in Bob Dylan’s memoir, “Chronicles,” about how the characters of the people in old songs were more real to Dylan than people in this day. Asked if he felt the same way, he said, “I believe I do.”
THE NEW ALBUM Shea’s putting together has stories of his own adventures, along with imagined journeys.
“Mariachi Hotel” is informed by Shea’s encounters in Los Angeles with mariachi singers who congregated at a certain establishment, but never for too long at one time.
“A lot of people who travel to Hollywood or California come there to reinvent themselves,” Shea said. “Mariachi musicians, one of the things they used to do is take on names for themselves — The Dragon or The Falcon. You’d see the names sewn on their jackets.”
On the other side of the personal spectrum, there’s “Mexicali Train,” about a train that used to travel between Puerto Vallarta and Mexicali — inspired by a real-life “wild, wild trip” that Shea took many years ago, before he met his wife of 20-plus years.
“At the time I was trying to recover from a broken heart,” Shea said. “And I realized that you carry things like that with you.”
He expects to take a light touch with this new recording, giving it a sparse, acoustic feel. But his concerts in Hawaii will include songs from all of his albums and a group of local musicians Shea praised as “fantastic.”
“There are people who come back to see me every time,” he said.
He’s looking forward to seeing them again.