Sean Hayes w/ Haunted Shed duo
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Sean Hayes is a Bay Area singer-songwriter who makes music to dance to or cry to, or maybe both at the same time. He was born in New York City, raised in North Carolina, and honed his earliest musical chops in a band playing Irish and old-time tunes — but his unique style of deeply felt, R&B-inflected folk really matured during his two decades singing and playing in cafes, bars, and night clubs of San Francisco.
His voice layers wonder and heartache upon grit and gravel, sex and soul. His lyrics carry an unpretentious wisdom. He’s dueted with Aimee Mann; been covered by the Be Good Tanyas; and toured with Anais Mitchell (performing songs from Hadestown, before it was an award-winning Broadway show). His songs have appeared on NPR, NBC and HBO.
Be Like Water, out Nov. 19, 2021, is Hayes’ ninth full-length, and his first record in five years — a time period in which, after nearly 20 years in San Francisco, Hayes moved north with his family to Sonoma County. The resulting songs are warm and enveloping, bluesy and lived-in, and have the feel of someone stretching out their legs on a back porch, perhaps a little unused to having the space to do so.
Album opener “Shine” sets the tone — exuberant yet unhurried, it serves as a get-well note and rally cry for his friend Charley Crockett, the acclaimed country-blues singer who underwent heart surgery in 2019. On tour together in 2016, the musicians bonded over their shared history of busking — of singing for the joy of it in the humblest of settings.
“Tell me how you keep believing, is it just a feeling?” asks Hayes over layered, effervescent guitar, before landing on the song’s hymn-like refrain: “You shine when you’re singing; keep shining, keep singing.”
Other inspirations run the gamut: sly, funky jams like “Bell” and “Gold Tooth” revolve quite literally around a celebration of the bell shape and Hayes’ gold tooth, respectively; while “Joy” is a seductive, slow-burning afternoon love song, and “Invisible Weight” sings the praises of a simple apology, no matter how long overdue. Taken together, these tracks comprise a meditation on balance and acceptance — on learning to see life’s bruises and heartaches as necessary parts of the ride.
“To me, the phrase Be Like Water is about being patient,” says Hayes, of the record he made during a year when such a mantra felt perhaps more necessary than ever. “Rolling with your nature, and trying to stay present. I think of it as James Brown meets the I Ching: You have to get up to get down.”
Every few years it seems like the historically fruitful music community of Athens, Georgia births a recording that both translates and transcends the tangled beauty of the Classic City. From start to finish, Haunted Shed’s gorgeous debut album overflows with this complicated beauty – not just the glowing and radiant grace of Athens, but also its darker charms that occasionally bloom from the inherent shadows.
Fronted by lifelong musician and songwriter Etienne de Rocher, Haunted Shed sometimes sounds like it evolved from the West Coast’s lineage of late 20th century indie rock. Other times it sounds like there is a new genre happening here, right before our ears: something that unravels familiar sounds from the past to weave into brand new patterns and shapes.
Etienne was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama but came up in the San Francisco, Bay Area’s vibrant 1990s music scene before relocating to Athens. His eponymous 2006 album has garnered a cult following – the kind that still pay him well to play private events and evening front-porch shows, streaming long distance in real-time. Etienne’s songs have always blended the avant-sonicity of indie rock with the elegance of 1960s baroque pop. But with Haunted Shed, many of his lyrics conjure the specters of Southern Gothic tomes. He explains, “These themes are definitely a big part of how I saw the South growing up. And it was something I missed during my West Coast years. You can’t escape it in Athens. It’s steeped in the soil, trees, and buildings.” This is handsomely contrasted with songwriting and compositional arrangements that enter an entirely advanced dimension, with ample help from some of Athens’ most seasoned veterans.
Dan Nettles (Kenosha Kid) plays lead guitar. But after hearing how he can tonally manipulate vintage sounds into unfolding lines of bewitching melodies, “lead guitar” seems too simple a phrase. “Casting spells” might be a better way to explain what he does. Drifting somewhere between Steve Gunn’s interlaced peaks and Europe ’72 Grateful Dead, Dan’s playing sounds both warmly recognizable and casually cosmopolitan.
There couldn’t be a better suited drummer for Haunted Shed than Joe Rowe (The Glands, Bliss, Pylon Reenactment Society). If you can imagine the well-oiled mechanics of Fugazi’s Brendan Canty downshifting into the smoldering grooves of Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley, you’re halfway there. He balances the multiplicity of heavy kinetics with the finesse of intricate patterns.
Bass player and cellist Jacob Morris (Moth, Vic Chesnutt, Patterson Hood, Madeline, Ham 1, Liz Durrett) brings a versatile foundation to Haunted Shed. Taking cues from the psychedelic pop and folk of Athens’ robust scene, his contributions to these songs pivot from heavy bedrocks to the more buoyant groundings of floating sea vessel.
While these elements of Haunted Shed radiate with the resonance of indie rock’s heyday, this is not the now common sound of young musicians endearingly affecting the ‘90s. One listen and it’s obvious that these guys were there. They brought parts of what was there to here. And a lot changed along the way. This could be why some of these songs sound familiar but not nostalgic. Not since War On Drugs has a band blended both the 20th and 21st century so innately and innovatively. Here is a very forward-thinking and carefully crafted album that was made by a great band. And today’s indie rock needs a great band – a band that can pull us into a safer realm where everything feels cool and easy. But make no mistake.
Nothing cool is easy.
The Grey Eagle
185 Clingman Ave
Asheville, NC, 28801