The stage at the Green Note in Camden is tiny. You could probably just about park a car on it, if you could park cars vertically, but before they’ve even arrived, the Shook Twins have all but filled its floor with three separate boards of effects pedals. I get the feeling this isn’t going to be your average folk gig and I’m genuinely worried there’s not going to be anywhere for the band to stand. When they do squeeze themselves behind the mic stands I note (with some intrigue a little fear) that sisters Katelyn and Laurie each have two mics... this is definitely going to be interesting.
The Shookies (their abbreviation, not mine) are from Portland, Oregon and this is their first ever UK show. They seem totally mystified that they’ve packed the place out but unfazed, they get stuck straight in with tracks from their new album, which is due later this year, alongside a selection from their previous two self-released CDs. Katelyn Shook handles acoustic guitar while Laurie Shook plays five-string banjo and there’s a seemingly constant double vocal with the voices, as you might expect, being so similar that they give the effect of two people singing completely as one. The lineup is completed by bassist Josh Simon and guitarist Nico Daoussis and no, they don’t quite all fit onstage.
Very early on in the set we understand the need for all that extra gear underfoot. The band’s sound is like a Frankenstein hybrid of The Be Good Tanyas, KT Tunstall, Feist & Ani DiFranco. While many acts strive to get that ‘live’ sound on record, the Shook Twins’ unspoken manifesto appears to be just the opposite: to bring all the fun of the studio to the stage. The songs are tied up in impressive beatbox loops (Laurie definitely has a fallback career as a one-girl hip-hop act,) mic effects (ah, so that’s why there’s a sparkly white and gold telephone receiver on the mic stand,) and in-flight banjo-drumming (don’t go anywhere without a set of brushes, that’s what I always say). This is what makes the show so much fun for all concerned as the audience wonders what’s coming next and the band members hope they have enough hands to cope with all the extra toppings.
The identical twins have been making music together ever since their school days so it’s no wonder that their stage relationship is so symbiotic and that their range of material is so wide: from the surreal ‘Window’ to the apocalyptic stomp of ‘Shake’ through the intimate ‘Under The Ocean’ to the playful ‘Back In Fifteen Minutes’ they quickly prove that they can - and do - write about anything and everything. Clearly determined to make the most of their London debut, they treat us to two sets of nearly an hour each, both overloaded with what Camden folk would call shenanigans: choreographed headbanging, bawdy jokes, precariously balanced glockenspiels, and frequent fits of hysterics. Thankfully the ragged bonhomie of the night never once descends into dereliction of musical duty and the band remain impressively tight, peppering the sets with covers: a stunning a capella rendition of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’, a Broken Social Scene song and ‘Come Together’, introduced as “a song we wrote by the Beatles.”
With a hairdo that can only be described as inexcusable, special mention must go to guitarist Niko Daoussis who also doubles on mandolin, drum pads and backing vocals. Alongside bassist Josh Simon, he is ceaselessly mocked for the duration (dubbed Shreddy Krueger, while Simon is crowned Shreddy Mercury) which shows how dearly held they are held as bandmates. Niko is let loose on lead vocal for a couple of his own songs, most notably the superb ‘Tall Drink Of Water’ which has echoes of the brilliant Jeff Finlin. Much like his hair, he’s all over the place, switching between guitar and mandolin, by turns tearing up with some fast country lickin’, teasing out atmospherics with an e-bow or washing with huge reverb-sodden chords. And that’s before I even mention the spontaneous rapping - one of the evening’s high points - which has the entire room in stitches.
The first Shook Twins show in the UK could’ve easily been just a polite “Hello, London!” but it was more like: “We’re here, we’re weird and we brought all our gear! Let us show you how we party in Portland...” It’s a reminder that rootsy Americana need not be dull or subdued and that a tall blonde female duo can do more than just look pretty and sound slick. They can also be eccentric, brilliant and ambitious and put on one hell of a show, even outside their territorial comfort zone. Let’s hope they come back very soon.
Shook Twins - Green Note, Camden May 4th 2016
Review by Rich Barnard.