The big band roars back into action with a new album and tour
By Jeff McCord
Hot on the heels of their just-released new album, Transit Damage, Shinyribs showered a packed house in Studio 1A with their free-flowing r&b romps. Fresh off several weeks of touring, enjoying a break before the road cycle kicks off again, the band was razor-tight, fueled by the expert moves of frontman Kevin Russell, seemingly operating on muscle memory.
Transit Damage is the eighth Shinyribs release (if you count their 2018 Christmas album, The Kringle Tingle), and its big, brassy casserole of east Texas, Memphis, and New Orleans soul has been wowing crowds everywhere they go. Following their 1A session was a sold-out show at Greune Hall – just another big venue full of happy, dancing fans.
For those who have followed Kevin Russell’s career ever since he arrived in Austin from Beaumont, Shinyribs is truly next-level shit – a powerful showband fronted by a charismatic and entertaining singer/songwriter. With the outfits, the big arrangements, the horns and backup singers, the conga lines, and the impressive way Russell reaches the back seats of a large venue, it’s easy to forget his origins.
His previous Austin band, the Gourds (on “hiatus” since 2013), was much beloved. But they were a loose, shambolic street-clothed songwriting collective, often working without a setlist, shifting freely from rock to Americana, and likely to whip out a polka or a waltz at any given moment. One of their most popular moves was a cover of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin And Juice’. In short, they were all over the place.
I ask Kevin if he’s completely left those tendencies behind.
“My songs are still over the place,” he says, laughing. “That’s part of why I went to Steve Berlin as a producer (Los Lobos’ Berlin produced Transit), because my best records [happen] when I have an objective person to bounce ideas off of, somebody to keep me focused. Otherwise, I’ll go off the rails.”
The pandemic knocked a lot of bands’ trajectories off track. Shinyribs was no different. Unwilling to wait things out, Kevin taught himself more home recording techniques and released 2021’s Late Nite TV Gold.
“It was different,” Kevin muses. “I love it. But it wasn’t sonically the most amazing record, with good reason. So I wanted to do something a little more produced, a better quality recording.”
Russell enlisted Berlin, who he had met years earlier, and brought his band to the late George Reiff’s studio, The Finishing School. George, a close friend and ally, passed away in 2017. He was there with Kevin from the 2007 onset of Shinyribs, when it was just a Russell solo project, and Reiff produced the first three Shinyribs albums. Returning there without George must have been surreal.
“It was a full circle moment. Yeah, I had not been to that studio since George had passed. But I knew I knew Gordy (Quist of Band of Heathens, who now operates the studio) and all those Heathens guys. I’d heard great things about it, but it wasn’t until I did a little demo for the Parks Parks Department here in Austin about keeping your dog on the leash (‘If you’re listening to me, ladies and gentlemen, keep your dog on a leash!’) that I recorded there and was amazed [with] the upgrades they had made. They had kept a lot of George in the house, which I really thought was thoughtful.”
While Kevin misses the anything-goes vibe of the Gourds a bit, Shinyribs has brought him the rewards of many new fans in much larger venues. And with that, some new headaches.
“I mean, it’s a lot to manage. There’s a lot of people and the size of the band is the biggest challenge probably for us. Payroll and managing logistics. Like doing this thing (their Studio 1A session), we’re all in the green room waiting. Deidre (Gott, KUTX Live Music Director) shows up and she’s like, ‘Is everybody here?’ I know everybody’s not here. I don’t know where they went. It’s a big band of free spirits, you know?“
With the west coast in their rearview, Kevin and his band of free spirits will soon pile back in the bus to head east. Back in action post-pandemic with an album full of great new tunes, they’re having a blast. And there’s lots left to anticipate.
“I’m looking forward to playing the Kennedy Center in D.C. on September 8th. That’s a big, exciting thing to do. The Millennium Stage, but still, it’s Kennedy Center. And then the Rhythm and Roots festival up in Rhode Island. We haven’t done that in a long time. It’s a great little zydeco festival, strangely enough.”
He flashes a big smile.
“And the crawfish are huge up there.”
“Simply Belong To You”
Musicians: Kevin Russell – guitar, uke, vocals; Keith Langford – drums; Mason Hankamer – bass; Eric Baker – keys; Danny Levin-Violin; Mark Wilson – Sax; Tiger Anaya – trumpet; Alice Spencer – vocals; Kellee Fuller – vocals
Producer: Deidre Gott, Confucius Jones; Audio Engineer: Jake Perlman; Audio Mix: Jake Perlman; Cameras: Michael Minasi, Deborah Cannon, Renee Dominguez; Edit: Deborah Cannon; Host: Jody Denberg