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Shawn James and The Shapeshifters bring burly act to Norman Music Festival

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Shawn James and the Shapeshifters - SHAWN JAMES / PROVIDED
  • Shawn James / Provided
  • Shawn James and the Shapeshifters

Editor’s note: Oklahoma Gazette is featuring one performer a week in the lead-up to Norman Music Fest.

Frontman Shawn James warns not to overlook the importance of beard oil when trying to grow out a face full of fluff. If any band performing at Norman Music Festival knows a thing or two about facial hair, it’s the bearded men of Shawn James and The Shapeshifters, a Fayetteville, Arkansas, band that plays swampy blues and folk with a rock-hard edge.

Banjo player Baker McKinney, with his beard exceeding a foot in length, is an unrelenting proponent of the magic, skin-soothing oil, James said. They forgot to bring any on their last tour, so McKinney had oil mailed to a venue they were booked to play.

“Aside from that, my best [beard-growing] advice is just not to give a fuck,” James said.

The burly band sometimes intimidates strangers, but those who can look beyond the facial hair will find a jolly spirit. The four-piece is ultimately out to have a good time.

“As soon as people come up to us or overhear our conversations, they just start laughing at us,” James said. “Really, we’re just a bunch of normal dudes who poke fun at each other and just joke and are silly all the time.”

James moved to Fayetteville in 2012. At that time, he focused on his solo act, a one-man-band folk gig. While in his new city, James said he met McKinney and the other musicians who would later make up The Shapeshifters’ core.

“It happened naturally, to be quite honest,” James said. “I just moved here and met a bunch of awesome people that were into the music. Opportunities kept coming, so we decided to make it more of a full-time touring thing.”

Sonic intersection

Long hair and beards are not the only things that make The Shapeshifters stick out. The band fits a country-folk aesthetic but projects an attitude and gruffness that removes it from the cookie-cutter mold of contemporary Americana.

“Everybody in the band now kind of has their background in more heavy rock and metal music,” James said.

James said it was never his intention to create any kind of metal act. Instead, his aim was to create more melodic rock ’n’ roll.

Still, the members’ hardcore backgrounds often push them into edgier territory, a tendency they have come to embrace.

The tattooed musicians look like they could pass as a Slayer tribute act, but there’s plenty of soul behind The Shapeshifters’ sound. Part of that comes from James’ commanding voice.

James was raised in Chicago and grew up singing gospel in church. In high school, he fronted rock and punk acts. He joined a metal band in college and developed a screaming-yet-polished vocal style.

All the sonic roads he has traveled intersect with The Shapeshifters.

“I just like that we’re bringing a different vibe to the mixture of genres we’re doing,” he said.

All those influences contribute to the passion James and his bandmates feel for their music. Their goal is for that passion to come across in every live performance. Records are great, but James wants to leave an impression that can only be made firsthand.

“A lot of bands I see, their music is great, and I go and see them live and it just seems like they’re not even excited to be playing their music,” he said. “They’re just kind of standing there or whatever. With us, we’re all over the place. We have whiplash by the end of the set.”

Print headline: Power play, Shawn James and The Shapeshifters deliver swampy blues with extra punch.

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