Legendary band believes in monstrous sound

"Colonel" J.D. Wilkes will never been accused of possessing too much self-control on stage.

That's because Th' Legendary Shack*Shakers' blues harmonica-playing frontman has been known to liberate snot upon fans. He also crowd surfs, climbs sound rigs and generally leaves a trail of chaos in his wake — all while shirtless.

Wilkes said he's not sure what possesses him when he takes the stage with his band, purveyors of a unique brand of frenzied Southern Gothic rockabilly and blues that's also undeniably punk.

"Before the show I get in this real low point, a depressive state, and as soon as I hit the stage and (guitarist) David Lee hits the first note it's like starting up a car. Something comes over me," Wilkes said. "It's like a manic side, an alter-ego … there is a measure of control involved. We would be getting sued left and right if I did everything that went on in my head."

But Th' Legendary Shack*Shakers, based in Nashville, aren't typical three-chord thrashers. Wilkes said the Shack*Shakers' newest release, Believe — which features nods to polka and gypsy music on top of the band's Pentecostal/blues/punk hodgepodge — is an attempt to strip American music down to its roots and pull out something even wilder.

"It's getting really thick, really dense now," he said. "We're trying to put together some Frankenstein's monster of old world music and American folk tunes. We're trying to marry up all the different three-chord forms of music that really get under your skin and just hammer it home with some disturbing musical energy."

Wilkes, raised in various parts of the South, said his dual Catholic and Baptist upbringing allowed him to witness exorcisms and the devout speaking in tongues. His songs, in turn, are chock full of religious imagery but never become preachy — "The phalanges of St. Vitus/ Were stricken with arthritis/ So he lobbed them off and left them on the table."

Wilkes and Lee, along with drummer Paolo and upright bassist Mark Robertson, are the latest incarnation of a band that's undergone several lineup changes in its three-year history. Wilkes, the band's songwriter, has been a constant presence along with Robertson — the man who exposed the rockabilly and folk-inclined Wilkes to punk rock.

However, Wilkes said punk doesn't move his spirit as much as American roots music.

"I never listened to punk," he said. "I know of maybe three bands — The Clash, Sex Pistols and The Ramones – and that's not even 'Punk 101.'

Wilkes, whose on-stage histrionics would seem at home at a typical punk show, said the music doesn't "get under his skin."

"Punk just seems like a lot of noise to me, but I appreciate the immediacy in it … But I don't think there's anything more punk than (electric blues pioneer) Howlin' Wolf thrusting his loins into the air on stage, giving people the old evil eye. I don't want to call that punk — that's just better."

And just what does Wilkes think of critics who witness Th' Legendary Shack*Shakers' unbridled onstage personas and paint them as demonic?

"We're pushing the devil out of us," Wilkes said. "It's a cathartic exorcising of the crap that builds up in you throughout the day. Really I'm just putting my bipolar disorder to work for me, but I think everyone would be so lucky to have a primal-scream outlet like I do. I think everybody would be a lot happier."

Th' Legendary Shack*Shakers play a 21-and-over show at 10 p.m. Saturday at Onopa Brewing Company, 735 E. Center St. Call 264-3630 for more information.