Out to Sea with Shannon and the Clams

The beloved Oakland quartet closes the books on a big year with a hometown celebration.

Shannon and the Clams. Photo by Alysse Gafkjen

When it comes to Shannon Shaw’s voice, words simply fail to do it justice.

Over the course of her decade-long career as the frontwoman of the Oakland outfit Shannon and the Clams, many people have tried to capture the essence of Shaw’s vocals, but comparisons to doo-wop divas of the past and pop-star powerhouses of the present ignore the reality that her pipes truly have no equivalent. Paired with the musicianship of guitarist Cody Blanchard, Shaw’s voice is a contagion of emotions unleashed on an underground sock hop.

Known for a sound that combines elements of Phil Spector-era girl groups, basement punk, and rockabilly, Shannon and the Clams are a local favorite who’ve finally begun to enjoy some long-deserved industry recognition.

In a year largely blighted by political storm clouds and sobering headlines, the band infused a bit of brightness with the release of their sixth record, Onion. The album marks a change of labels for the group, who signed with Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound after the Black Keys frontman heard a Clams song while record-shopping and invited them to his Nashville studio.

Shaw made the most of the opportunity by also recording her debut solo album, Shannon in Nashville, with a team of acclaimed session musicians who’d previously worked with the likes of Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison.

“People don’t think of them as individual people,” Shaw says of the artists she worked with on Shannon in Nashville, “because you don’t really get to know them. You get to know the star that has their name on the album. One of the most interesting and humbling parts about working with them has been getting to know their style. That I can hear a song I’ve heard my whole life growing up and now notice the flavor that these musicians add with new ears is really super-cool for me.”

Following her solo sessions, Shaw returned with Blanchard, keyboardist Will Sprott, and drummer Nate Mahan to record arguably the Clams’ strongest album to date. However, while Onion may have been cut in Nashville, its heart still largely belongs to Oakland.

In fact, several tracks on Onion address the grief and sorrow Shaw and Blanchard experienced in the wake of the 2016 Ghost Ship warehouse tragedy. On “Backstreets,” Blanchard sings about the kind of person who sees spaces like the Ghost Ship as a refuge from a misguided world. With “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” Shaw employs surf guitar and rich melodies to stump for hope in even the darkest of times.

With the blood of Oakland forever in their veins, it’s thus fitting that Shannon and the Clams will bid adieu to 2018 with a New Year’s Eve show at the New Parish.

“It can be such a bummer holiday sometimes,” Blanchard explains. “So we wanted to do something.”

In this case, that something is a sci-fi themed New Year’s Eve prom — a delightfully outlandish concept that harkens back to Shaw’s upbringing in Napa, where the best type of entertainment was the kind you made yourself.

“I come from a small town that is very un-fun,” Shaw says, “so I’ve always had to be like, ‘OK, am I going to be depressed and overthink everything, or am I going to do my own thing and find fun?’ I feel like that’s Oakland’s spirit, too.”

For those who attended Outside Lands, the Clams’ upcoming gig may be an encore performance. Despite enjoying a sizable and loyal following in the greater Bay Area, Shaw confesses that she was “totally blown away” by the crowd the band amassed during their Friday afternoon set.

“We literally played at 11:10 a.m.,” she says. “I wanted to cry the whole time I was on stage. We do great in San Francisco and the Bay Area. It’s our hometown, but never did I imagine we could pack a stage on a Friday before lunch in this massive place. It seriously made my heart soar all across the Polo Fields that day.”

At the moment, the Clams aren’t entirely sure what’s next. Blanchard expresses a desire to tour in Japan and Central America. Shaw has dreams of performing on a panoply of television programs: The Ellen Show, Conan, and Saturday Night Live.

“I would love to write stuff for soundtracks,” Blanchard adds. “I’d love to write for other people. That would be amazing, actually. I would also love to put out my own record — I’ve been working on some other stuff that’s totally different.”

“I would like to write a song for Danzig,” Shaw counters. “I would love to write Danzig the perfect song.”

What’s clear is that Shannon and the Clams aren’t in a rush. Having built their career on slow, steady steps, they find themselves at a crossroads. If the world isn’t their oyster, they can at least be certain of their status as one of Oakland’s most cherished pearls.

“We’ve been doing so much shit,” Shaw concludes. “We just keep doing more and more stuff. I don’t think any of us are thinking about slowing down. I feel like we’re in a really good, beautiful stride right now. It’s been an army crawl up a steep mountain, but it feels good.”

Shannon and the Clams, Monday, Dec. 31, 9 p.m., at the New Parish, 1743 San Pablo Ave., Oakland. $40-$50;  510-227-8177 or thenewparish.com.

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