Rick Shaffer - 'Jitterbug Shake'

Independent Spotlight is a continuing series on Stewart’s blog. The series revolves around independent artists and bands sending their music to Brett to review. No band is promised a positive review, and all music is reviewed honestly in an effort to better independent music.

In tonight’s Independent Spotlight, we delve into a new record from Rick Shaffer, guitarist of The Reds. ‘Jitterbug Shake’ is his sixth solo effort, combining his love of early R&B, rock and roll, and garage blues. Needless to say, Shaffer had me at ‘early R&B.’ The album ‘pushes the needle into the red,’ overdriving each track with the fierce ghost of rock and roll’s past. Influenced by the likes of Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and many others, Shaffer is attempting to pay homage to the legends through an extensive collection of original material. How are his ten new songs? Let’s check out the ‘Jitterbug Shake.’

‘Garage rock’ is dicey territory. You don’t want to sound blatantly underproduced and unrealized, but you do want to maintain the quips and authentic feel of the recordings. Fortunately, Shaffer walks this line remarkably well. As expected, ‘Got To Know’ slammed me in the face with a powerhouse rock and roll performance. The production quality isn’t particularly high, and levels regularly peak too high and distort. As aforementioned, though, Shaffer’s music does so with such enthusiasm that it doesn’t detract from the experience at all. It actually gives it a whole lot of character. (Remember the great J.J Cale? He was like that, too. The recordings weren’t conventionally strong, but you couldn’t beat his presence.)

‘Jitterbug Shake’ also seems to take a lot of influence from British Invasion era rock and roll. I’d align a track like ‘Sure Thing’ with the Stones in a heartbeat. Those bluesy themes, distorted slide guitar, and defiant lead vocals are incredibly similar to late 60s Rolling Stones music. ‘Going Strong’ continues this trend, accentuating Shaffer’s retro, yet contemporary style.

The only time the production, or lack thereof, misses its target is the occasional overuse of the tambourine. Every so often on tracks like ‘Just a Little,’ you wish that the tambourine was a bit more buried in the mix. With that said, that same track does also boast one of the meanest, most badass guitar solos of the collection. The trade off is well worth it.

The first six songs on the album feel like they’re in the same vein; they sound similar and rock out with themes that carry on from track to track. The bluesy ‘Confidence Man’ is a bit of a departure from that style, focusing more heavily on the blues. Thus, it may be my favorite track in the collection. As a Chicagoan musician, songs like this are my bread and butter and it fills my musical heart with joy to see Shaffer absolutely nail the formula.

‘Can’t Go Back’ feels a bit void of purpose, meandering its way through the second half of the album. The effort may have been strengthened by eight or nine songs instead of ten. Since Shaffer doesn’t venture too far out of his established comfort zone, the tracks begin to blend together a bit as you close in on the finale. I do however, dig that finale. ‘Last Of Me’ sounds like a track straight off of Bob Dylan’s ‘Bringing it Back Home.’ (Actually, the repeated guitar riff is eerily similar to the one on ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues.’) Again, though, that damn tambourine is twice as loud as Shaffer’s vocals and I couldn’t understand much of his musings.

‘Jitterbug Shake’ is a triumph in its ability to harness retro rock and roll and make it modern and relevant. Shaffer’s performance is top notch and for the most part, the barebones recordings serve him well. I would love to see him recorded with a better set-up, though. That tambourine soiled songs like ‘Last Of Me.’ Thus, the album is a fine effort, but the lack of production did bleed a bit past what I would consider ‘endearing.’ It’s very much worth the time of fans who dig that old time rock and roll, however, and it’ll get you dancing without a doubt.