The Rocks Off 200: Michael Anthony Shanks, Houston's Merry Shankster

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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.

Who? Michael Anthony Shanks fancies himself a comedian. Sorry, make that a chameleon.

"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.

Why Do You Stay In Houston? After joking about the Mexican food ("duh!!!"), Shanks says, "I feel like audiences here are really welcoming of all types of music, which is what I love to play. Also being such a large place, there are so many opportunities to work here, as well as amazing musicians to work with."

Music Scene Pet Peeve: "Tribute bands."

Five Desert Island Discs:

  • The Doors, The Doors
  • Orchestra Baobab, Specialist In All Styles
  • Phillip Glass, Koyaanisqatsi
  • John Coltrane, Olé
  • Ravi Shankar, India's Master Musician

Best Concert You Ever Saw: Shanks was 16 when he saw The Who at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion with three friends and his parents, "who of course sat on another part of the lawn," he advises.

"This was before bassist John Entwistle died and they were performing that night with Ringo Starr's son [Zak Starkey] on drums," he recalls. "Of course they rocked out super-hard and we had a great time without any alcohol or other stuff, just high in our own 'Teenage Wasteland.'"

First Song You Fell In Love With: The Beatles, "Strawberry Fields Forever" -- "I was mesmerized by the sounds in this song," Shanks says. "What a strangely put-together little pop tune. The way the strings come in and out, the esoteric drum parts, the horns...it's a symphony composed on magnetic tape. And the lyric, 'It's getting hard to be someone but it all works out,' really speaks to the human inside all of us."

Michael Shanks and the Merry Shanksters perform at the Continental Club after Beetle on Thursday, May 1, part of the Mid-Main First Thursday block party.

See the rest of the Rocks Off 200, and the Rocks Off 100's 2013 alumni, on the next page.


DJ Baby Roo, Vegetarian Hip-Hop Veteran Rachel Bays, Filming Them Softly Punk-Rock "Newcomers" Screech of Death Erin Rodgers, the Keys to Glass the Sky Alex LaRotta, Crate-Digging Fistful of Soul Brother Alycia Miles, Triumphant Soul Singer DJ Piam, Poison Girl's Bacon-Fat Funk Specialist Mister Insane, Host of The Insane Show Jake Rawls -- Kemo For Emo Is Back Santos Pastrana, Sound Engineer and DJ Ninja Heading Upstream with RIVERS' Chris Tamez DJ Dayta, Keeper of That Good Good Matthew Davis Buehrer, Runaway Sun's Globally Thinking Bassist Fat Tony, Third Ward to "BKNY" Noon, Rapper With a Lot on His Mind Matt Cash, Clear Lake's Cassette Tape Wailer Jason Smith, Alkari's Space City Rocker DJ Penetrate, All Lit Up in "Neon Lights" Catch Fever Is Catching On Renée Jonard, Princess of Noise Pollution Junior Gordon, Big Man With a Big Sound Chad Smalley, Blaggards' Barse Player Damien Randle, K-OTIX Man of Action Kevin Anthony, 45 Southbound Man DJ Good Grief Knows How to Have Fun Robert Kuhn, the Well-Traveled Islander Gunnar Cushway, Insko's Feel-Good Utilityman Mario Rodriguez, Tax the Wolf/Bang Bangz's Wonky Power Monger John Smith, Goodtime Continental Club Manager Dwayne Cathey, A Good Man to Scare People With Walter Carlos, Guitar-Punisher of Funeral Horse Ryan James, Putting Up a Good Fight John Cramer, Guitar Apostle of Project Grimm Big Gerb, Houston's Hongree-est MC Steven Higginbotham, Hard-Working Wheel Worker Alisha Pattillo & Her Swaggering, Soulful Sax Brandon Ray, Punk Rocker Turned Filmmaker/Animator The Excitable Boys of Another Run Flash Gordon Parks, DJ as Funky Professor DJ Main Event, Kratez Crew JumpOff Man Odd Hours and Back to Back's Hank Doyle Legendary K-OTIX Producer Russel "The ARE" Gonzalez Dylan Bryson Sings the Blues (Rock) DJ Damon Allen, R.O.C.O. Fellow Tom Lynch, New Kid On the Block Ashley Worhol, Goth-Metal Queen of Katy Joe Ortiz, Clockpole's Master of Nonsense Marzi Montazeri, the Man Dimebag Darrell Called a Bad Motherfucker John Salinas, the Beat Beast of Only Beast Homegrown Cowboy Crooner Charles Peters Adam Bricks, NYC Expat Metal Journeyman and Blasé Bassist Alan Hilton Kyra Noons, Houston's Reggae Sunsplash DJ AudiTory, the Maestro of LuvItMane The Nephilim Terror's Death-Metal Growler Danny Carroll Tommy Grindle, Guitarist of Square and Compass The Bailout Bureau's Mysterious "Bob Bovary" DJ Twinkle-Toes, Won a "Dick-Measuring Vinyl Orgy" With Two iPods Beanz N Kornbread, Gmail-Loving Production Duo You(genious), Party Crasher Turned Musical Auteur Daniel Alexander, Klein's Backyard MC



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