From the soul-roots and swamp-pop sounds of his songs to the mostly neighboring-states tour dates he’s booked, Kevin Russell has been inclined to keep Shinyribs primarily a regional band. All that might’ve just blown up on Sunday night when the band made its “Austin City Limits” debut at ACL Live.
The nationally televised PBS show, which long ago outgrew its regional focus but still makes an effort to work at least one or two local acts into each season’s mix, hit the bullseye this year with the selection of Shinyribs. Russell’s eight-piece outfit proved more than ready for prime time in a 15-song roof-raising party that may well lead to increased demand for the band from audiences nationwide and beyond.
Russell had played the program before, with his former band the Gourds during the program’s 32nd season just over a decade ago. He was more of a country-folk-rocker with that group, but when Shinyribs began taking shape in Russell’s head not long after that Gourds taping, his vision was of an even more genre-defying band that would also turn the heat up on performance theatrics.
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With four Shinyribs albums now under his belt, Russell had no shortage of material to pull from in this TV coming-out party (which was livestreamed on ACL’s YouTube channel). Five songs came from this year’s “I Got Your Medicine,” topped by the late-set highlight “I Gave Up All I Had,” which found Russell living out the song’s title, pleading off-mic directly into the cameras and finally collapsing onstage at the end.
But he also reached back for four tunes from the 2010 debut “Well After Awhile,” including that record’s very first song, “Who Built the Moon.” It came with a prefatory dedication to the late George Reiff, the bassist and producer who helped get Shinyribs off the ground. “To me, he hung the moon,” Russell said.
Three songs from 2013’s “Gulf Coast Museum” and two from 2015’s “Okra Candy” helped to fill out the set, along with a brilliant reworking of David Bowie’s “Golden Years” that they’ve been performing since Bowie’s death last year. (Russell is something of a master interpreter; remember that he was responsible for the Gourds’ string-band romp through Snoop Dogg’s “Gin & Juice” that became an early-internet viral sensation.)
Flanked at stage front on his right by the Tijuana Trainwreck Horns — Tiger Anaya on trumpet and Mark Wilson on sax and flute — and on his left by Shiny Soul Sisters singers Alice Spencer and Kelley Mickwee, Russell made smooth moves with his feet and his ukulele all night long, decked out in a snazzy purple suit with green shirt and hat. Every few songs, he got a boost from the Riblets — Amberlee Cantrell, Angie Johnson and Carly Bell — who danced and mimed along with him, much to the capacity crowd’s delight.
In the back, bassist Jeff Brown, drummer Keith Langford and keyboardist Winfield Cheek made sure the music was as lively as the stage antics were up front. And when the band broke into the fan-favorite “Poor People’s Store” at the end of the main set, the standing-room revelers on the floor started up a conga line without even needing Russell to lead them. Eventually he clambered offstage and joined them, mid-line, with a couple of Riblets eventually ending up down there too.
So what do you do for an encore after all that? Perhaps you could put on a glittery silver full-length robe with colorful flashing lights. After Russell introduced the band on the slow-paced, drawn-out “Sweet Potato,” the Riblets returned to drape him in that cape-de-grace, underneath which he wielded an electric guitar and wailed to his heart’s content on the first-album cut “East Texas Rust.”
“You don’t have to tour nationally,” Russell told me of his Shinyribs philosophy earlier this year. “And, you know, I’m 50 years old. I’m not going to be a pop star. You never know; it could happen, but I’m not going to actively chase that. If it comes to me, that’s fine.”