The Rocks Off 200: Michael Anthony Shanks, Houston's Merry Shankster
Welcome to The Rocks Off 200, our portrait gallery of the most compelling profiles and personalities in the far-flung Houston music community -- a lot more than just musicians, but of course they're in there too. See the original Rocks Off 100 at this link.
"No really, 'Chameleon' by Herbie Hancock is one of my all-time favorites," he says via email. "I really identify with the way the song fuses jazz with funk as well as experimental noise to create this surreal and groovy landscape. And much like the song, I love to learn many different types of music and cook them up into something wholly new."
Maybe it's a little bit of both, though. Shanks obviously enjoys a good pun; his latest ensemble, which spins a wide orbit of jazz, funk, Latin sounds and folk music around a nucleus of the blues, is called Michael Shanks and the Merry Shanksters. It's the natural byproduct of loving late-'60s classic rock in high school (Pink Floyd, The Beatles), a couple of years learning under noted Houston experimental-music figure John Edward Ross, studying ethnomusicology at UT-Austin and, most importantly, several years' travel in South America, where he discovered how wild people in other countries are about American roots music.
"Once you tell them you're from Texas they treat you like royalty," Shanks says. "They say tango is a lot like the blues...sad songs about unrequited love with a strange intensity that lifts the spirit."
Home Base: Not altogether surprisingly, Shanks is partial to Last Concert Cafe, arguably Houston's most eclectic venue and somewhere he correctly says, "you can always have a unique musical experience."
"They bring in so many great acts and are very welcoming to musicians of all sorts," Shanks reckons. "When I play inside on weeknights it's always a super-intimate vibe, and performing outside on the big stage where everyone is dancing in the sand makes me feel like my music can save the world ten times over. Oh yeah, and the food rocks too!"
Good War Story: A snowy New York City night in February 2013, a hip-hop jam session at a dive called Arlene's Grocery. Shanks walked in toting only a small Brazilian instrument similar to a ukulele, known as a cavaquinho, which he had never tried onstage before and couldn't play all that well in any case. Sounds like a scene from El Mariachi, doesn't it?
Well, the music was so jammin' that I couldn't help but get in on it and I asked the guitarist if I could sit in for a song or two. He said yes and so I plugged in my cavaquinho and it was super-loud coming through his amp. So I said to myself, ''sweet!!!''
The next thing I know Reggie Watts [musician/comedian known for IFC's Comedy Bang! Bang!] comes out of nowhere and grabs the mike and starts free-styling. So here I am jamming with Reggie Watts, one of the funniest most creative guys in show business and I'm playing on this instrument I barely know how to use.
So I ended up taking out a slide and doing some slippery psychedelic riffs behind Reggie's flow and he loved it. He came up to me after the jam and shook my hand and said, ''Good playing, bro."
Story continues on the next page.