Specters, Shapeshifters, & Saints @ The Westport Roots Fest

If my last preview of The Westport Roots Fest didn’t fully convince you that it will be a rocking weekend, then check out these three bands: The Spectramatics, Nicholas St. James, and Shawn James & The Shapeshifters. Whereas the three bands in my last preview tended to gravitate toward the harder, faster edge of the spectrum, these three acts have a different aesthetic.

While they don’t share a single distinct genre or sound, all three show a knack for taking established forms and tweaking them just a hair–enough to make their songs uniquely their own while keeping the original form recognizable. Whether it’s The Spectramatics’ shimmering rockabilly, Nicholas St. James’ vaudeville folk, or Shawn James & The Shapeshifters’ grimy rock, these three acts promise sounds unlike another and a stage show to match.

The Spectramatics play clean, bright rockabilly. The band seems to be almost on a mission to resurrect that jittery rock sound that in some ways defined the 1950s. And by all estimation, they’re succeeding. Their songs are catchy and jangling. The Spectramatics, on first listen, sound like Buddy Holly hopped in a time machine from the late 50s to the present. But to say their sound is purely derivative is to do the band a disservice. Their instrumentation sounds deceptively simple, but the interplay between rhythm and lead gives them a nuance that transcends genre. Adding the flair of their fills to the mix, The Spectramatics all but reinvent rockabilly. Their new rockabilly shares all the qualities of the 50s with an ear for all the wonderful developments since then.

Likewise, Nicholas St. James blends together old and new to create a sound as distinct as its stage show. St. James mixes folk, blues, vaudevillian drama, and country together. Can’t figure out how it sounds? Good. Part of the joy of listening to Nicholas St. James is hearing the disparate aesthetics combine to fill the gaps each one inherently has: a blues progression underlays a folky melody with a vaudeville-inspired narrative. St. James takes this unmistakable sound and gives it perfect treatment on stage. His burly beard and attire that seems preserved from the early 20th century combined with his seemingly unshakeable confidence on stage makes a Nicholas St. James performance one not to miss.

While these two acts thrive by combining aesthetics, Shawn James & The Shapeshifters are more subtle with their alchemy. Bouncing between a White Stripes-esque distortion and a Black Keys-inspired blues-pop, the Fayettevile band lays its rock down hard and thick. Shawn James & The Shapeshifters don’t dress up their music. Their passion is as raw as it gets, and their sound seemingly comes out of their instruments without trying. The band makes writing songs that successfully wed the catchiness of pop and the drive of blues-influenced rock look incredibly easy, and judging by videos of their performances their shows are equally mind-blowing without seeming contrived.

These three acts are just a taste of what’s to come at The Westport Roots Festival. The event will host over 45 bands during the weekend of May 23rd. It promises to be an almost overwhelmingly good time–pairing the best local acts with national and touring ones. While there will be veterans of the Kansas City music scenes strutting their stuff, there will be just as many new bands to discover.

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