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Published: 2012/06/29
by Brian Robbins

Lonesome Shack: Blues-Fueled Time Machine

“What are, ‘Canned beans spread on a tortilla in a convenience store parking lot’?”

If you’re ever on Jeopardy and – under the category of “Musical Food” – the clue is “What groove-propelled bluesmen fortify themselves with before embarking on a set of time-traveling, dimension-straddling blues,” then slap your buzzer, look ol’ Alex Trebek right square in the eye, and lay that opening sentence on him.

If there’s any problem with that answer-in-the-form-of-a-question, then you just have Mr. Trebek call me, as I know this pearl of wisdom to be a fact, Jack. At least, in the case of Lonesome Shack – who do as much groove-propelled time traveling and dimension straddling as anyone I’ve ever met.

While I was waiting to meet up with Lonesome Shack for their set at a little pub called Guthrie’s in Lewiston, ME, my cellphone rang – it was Shack’s singer/guitarist Ben Todd.

“Are you in the area?” he wanted to know.

“Yeah,” I answered. “We’re parked alongside the sidewalk, looking right at Guthrie’s sign. How about you guys?”

“We’re just finishing up eating … we’re here in town, too.”

“Did you have something good?” I asked. I knew Todd and drummer Kristian Garrard had driven through from Winooski, VT on that unseasonably cold spring day – a trip that deserved meatloaf and mashed potatoes, at least.

“Umm …” Ben Todd paused, then chuckled. “Beans out of a can, spread on tortillas. It’s, uh, that kind of a trip. We’ll see you in a few minutes, okay?”

In a way, it only served to solidify my early impression of Lonesome Shack: nobody plays music like this because of its marketability – they play it because it’s in them and needs to come out.

When Todd and Garrard (and, when he’s available, bassist Luke Bergman) go deep in a set – transporting themselves and everyone around them to some mystical place where WWII has just ended and country blues has not only gotten electrified, but picked up some world rhythms, as well – they’re not putting on an act.

That’s just what Lonesome Shack does.

Something happens as Lonesome Shack prepares to play. It’s subtle, at first: no one notices the colors of the room begin to fade when Kristian tightens down the wingnut on his big crash cymbal with the horrid-looking rip in its guts. And although the air inside Guthrie’s is smoke-free and lightly infused with cool food smells from the kitchen area, there’s a smokiness – felt, not smelled – when Ben hauls his Tiesco out of the case and plugs it in. Kristian drapes a t-shirt across his snare; Ben trades off his watch cap for a well-beaten wide-brimmed hat. The room is almost completely black and white now. Lewiston, ME in 2012 has become Avalon, MS a long time ago. (Along with some other place and time that nobody has experienced yet.) Lonesome Shack begins their set.

My wife pointed out the WA plate on the Subaru that pulled up in front of Guthrie’s: “What do you think?”

“Gotta be them,” I said. Lewiston – followed by an appearance in Belfast, ME the following day at the Free Range Festival – was the eastern end of a big cross-country circle Garrard and Todd were making from Seattle and back. They were hop-scotching from show-to-show, playing mostly small clubs like Guthrie’s. (Garrard told me the most successful show on the eastbound leg was a last-minute gig at a record shop in Rapid City, SD – on Record Store Day. “It was cool,” Kristian said. “Everybody seemed to be loving it and we sold a bunch of records.”)

Sure enough, it was the two Lonesome Shackers that climbed out of the Subaru; they resembled the photos I’d seen of them, anyway. Their handshakes were solid, but they weren’t what you call loud men – Garrard, in fact, comes across as quite shy. It’s almost hard to believe that these are the two groove monsters who created the music on 2010’s greasy raunchfest Slidin’ Boa.

Ben Todd thought they had a few minutes to hang out and chat before they needed to set up their minimalist gear – a stripped-to-the-bones drum set and both guitar and mic driven through the same small amp.

“What time do you guys start?” I asked. They’d be opening a three-band bill, with fellow Seattleans The Curious Mystery and Maine’s own Arborea following them. The two of them shrugged in unison. Garrard grinned.

“I don’t know,” he said softly. “Somebody will probably tell us.”

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