by Nick Stubblefield
It would be futile to try and encapsulate impressions of electro-acoustic artist Sxip Shirey's (pronounced SKIP SHY-REE) album release show at Williamsburg's National Sawdust in a single blog post. The show lineup included guest singers, tuba, penny-whistles, music boxes, children's toys, live effects and drum loops, a string section, horns, harmonicas, dobro, and oh yes — a twenty-person choir. Instead, let the composer-performer sum it up in his own words: "As a kid, I grew up listening to the Beatles, so I thought each song should have a different studio set up...nobody told me they never toured that shit." The concert, which celebrated the release of Shirey's newest record, A Bottle of Whiskey and Handful of Bees, was the only show Sxip presented in promotion of the record, and that made it extra special for an audience already game to follow Shirey down a strange, sonic rabbit hole.
First off, how about another hand for Garth the sound guy? Each of the many numbers required a vastly different stage configuration, numerous mic set ups, and live audio processing. It’s a testament to the technician’s abilities that he was able to mix all that input down to cohesive, hiccup-free sound.
Trying to describe Sxip’s music in words risks omitting an essential aspect of his musicality. The problem is the broad range of genres. During the set, he referred to himself as a “folk musician,” and sure, his original song “Palms,” featuring dobro and Shirey’s bellowing baritone, might fit that label. But “folk" belies his “I Live in New York City,” a tune with a stomping, electronic back-beat groove with a heavily fuzzed-out harmonica melody on top. Nor would it describe the soulful, rocking, “Bach, Stevie Wonder, and Janelle Monae,” which featured guest singer Rhiannon Giddens. “Folk music” would not remotely describe “Cinnamon Stick” or “I Gotta Man,” the pulsing, heavy-beat electronic soul grooves Shirey composed for and from the point of view of guest singer Xavier. The folk genre also doesn’t encompass his most experimental works, such as the elegy he composed for David Bowie, "Latency." In that work, a twenty-person choir surrounded the audience, passing on musical motifs to one another in a sort of musical game of telephone. Talk about surround sound!
If it all sounds a little like a circus, that might be just how Shirey intended it. He composed the album while touring the world with the circus LIMBO. While the music, styles, and influences surely varied wildly, Shirey unified it all with an infectious passion and creative spirit that had the audience on their feet and dancing by the end.