Review: In Dark Times, Shannon Shaw is a Light We Can All See

When it comes to Shannon Shaw, there’s no need for a spotlight.

During a homecoming performance at San Francisco’s Chapel on Wednesday night, Shannon Shaw may have shared the stage with a sizable, eclectic crew of backing musicians, but the focus was squarely on her. Playing cuts off her superb 2018 solo debut, Shannon in Nashville, the Napa-raised singer and bassist embodied all the best aspects of a diva.

Her voice, which channels the sugar of doo-wop and the angst of punk in equal measure, was shined in the confines of The Chapel — a venue that may get sweaty in a hurry but deserves praise for its immaculate acoustics. There was no shortage of sweat on Wednesday night, as an expectedly diverse crowd of outcasts, baby boomers, and scenesters — as well as Shaw’s own family and friends — packed the house.

Before Shaw’s entourage arrived, the mood was set courtesy of Oakland heavy metal outfit Psychic Hit. Led by the chaotic charm of lead singer Ariana Jade, the band thrashed their way through songs that showcased their ceaseless energy and effervescent cool. Clad in leather and not afraid to push the Chapel’s sound system to its limit, Psychic Hit was a desperately needed shot of adrenaline for a region in dire need of fresh, engrossing musical talent. Be on the lookout — it’s hard to imagine Jade and company slowly down anytime soon.

For those who have yet to experience the magic of a Shannon & the Clams show, it’s important to clarify that seeing Shaw solo isn’t simply “Clams Lite.” While the energy for both outfits is comparable, the source material is not. With the Clams, Shaw has released six albums over the past decade. In her capacity as a solo artist, she is still deservedly riding high from her inaugural offering last year. Produced by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, Shannon in Nashville found Shaw belting technicolor tales of heartbreak refracted through a rainbow of vintage sounds.

(Zack Ruskin)

In place of the legendary session musicians Auerbach brought in to record with Shaw for Nashville, their Chapel counterparts were more than suited for the task at hand. Watching roughly ten artists all crammed onto the Chapel stage — each of them seemingly delighted by the close proximity rendered necessary by the small space — was as mesmerizing as the sounds they created. One might equate it to the goofy joy of watching Thom Yorke dance—there’s just something so satisfying in knowing the performers are having as much fun as the crowd.  

There could be no question that this was the case at Shaw’s show.

Adding to the good vibes was the fact that it was her birthday. Midway through her set (which, sadly, was only 45-minutes long), the band briefly paused so a cake could be brought to Shaw, followed by an obligatory rendition of “Happy Birthday.” In that moment, Shaw was the polar opposite of a diva as she humbly accepted the baked good and profusely thanked her bandmates and fans.

This contrast in character — how Shaw can be an Aretha on stage but then be found happily chatting with fans outside the venue after a gig — speaks to what a rare and valuable treasure she truly is.

The formula for Bay Area bands as of late — both Shaw and the Clams call Oakland home — has been that a group either outgrows the region and moves to Los Angeles or eschews the trappings of a traditional musical career to stay local. In the case of Shaw, she’s managed to tread a microscopically fine line that’s allowed her to both enjoy some much-deserved national attention and remain a vital part of the Bay Area music scene.

It’s a talent she may have honed in part thanks to her friendship with filmmaker John Waters — a self-professed Shannon and the Clams superfan. Just as Waters found a way to increase his viewership without ever truly leaving his beloved Baltimore behind, Shaw is now admirably navigating similar territory. Watching her attack her bass with dexterous fury, yelping and cooing over extinguished flames and lasting torments, conjures the same satisfaction baseball fans feel watching a homegrown pitcher finish out his first shutout.

In both cases, it is an occasion that calls for civic pride at a time when worthwhile reasons for such things are in perilously short supply. As vans packed with amps and pedals continue to blaze a one-way trail south, it is a comfort to know that we still have Shaw and her ferociously emotive pipes close by. The Bay Area may not retain her forever, so let’s make damn sure we enjoy every moment with Shaw we get.

When you see Shaw for yourself, you too may fully understand why a spotlight serves no purpose—how could it when she is already the brightest thing in the room?

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