After their March record release show was pre-empted by COVID, Charlottesville’s Shagwuf were left hanging. New EP Trendy Weapon, and the longform video they made to go with it, demonstrate their continued strength.
2020 has been a rough year for everyone, and Virginia’s own Shagwuf are no exception. COVID pulled the rug out from under everyone, but it got to them early, as the record release show for their highly anticipated third album, Dog Days Of Disco, had been scheduled for March 12 — the very day that the quarantine hit.
Shagwuf bassist Sally Rose described the chaotic hours before the show was scheduled to take place. “Emails and texts were flying back and forth with the promoter,” she said. “A lot of people were urging us to go on with the show. We had about two years worth of writing, savings, touring and heart poured into that album. We wanted to honor it, we wanted to celebrate, we wanted to play what felt like the last hoorah.”
“We had just received the vinyl copies we pressed for this album,” guitarist Pete Stallings chimes in. “I was sooo excited to let people hear it.”
In such early days, no one really knew what the risk of holding a live music event would be. “There was so much uncertainty in those early days of March,” said Rose. “Everybody was trying to grasp the severity of the crisis. It was grim and very real in larger cities, but still felt far away from our little hometown.”
Ultimately, the band knew they had to pull the plug. “In the big picture, we knew the virus was way bigger than us. So we called it off just hours before the show.” Rose feels good about the decision in hindsight. “Looking back at it now, there’s no doubt we made the right call. It should’ve been an easier decision, we just didn’t know the gravity of it all.”
Once their album release show had been called off, along with all live performances for the foreseeable future, Shagwuf had to figure out what to do with themselves. Luckily, they still had their music. And by the time summer rolled around, they had enough material for an entirely new project.
Stallings sets the scene for the psychic environment in which the new material was composed. “The songs were written at the end of May, beginning of June. There were protests in every major city. COVID was kicking America’s ass. Our supposed leader was making everything worse,” he said. “But I didn’t want an angry record. I wanted a musical hug.”
The result is a four-song EP entitled Trendy Weapon, a great addition to Shagwuf’s deep catalog of energetic, inspiring grunge-blues-rock. In addition to three songs featuring Stallings and Rose incorporating the vocal interplay that Shagwuf fans know and love, it features the first Shagwuf song composed and featuring lead vocals by drummer Pablo Daniel Oliveri. “Arma De Moda” — its name translates into English as “trendy weapon,” making it a title track of sorts — manages to maintain Shagwuf’s tough, noisy crescendos while exemplifying a Latin-flavored feel that incorporates Oliveri’s musical heritage into the Shagwuf sound and, by doing so, expands that sound into previously-unexplored territory.
“It’s hard to believe this is actually the first song he has ever written and sang lead on in Shagwüf,” Rose said. “It’s so big sounding. I think all of us were blown away with how it turned out. It’s a challenging song with a lot of moving parts. It came out with a fever of Argentinian passion and pure, unassailable rock’n’roll. It was just what we wanted.”
Rather than spotlight any one song on their new EP with a video, Shagwuf chose to go a slightly different route, working with longtime visual collaborator Rich Tarbell to come up with a four-song film entitled “The Year Was 2020” — named after a lyric that shows up on multiple Trendy Weapon tracks. RVA Mag is lucky enough to present that video to you here for the first time below. But first, let’s talk about it.
Tarbell’s idea for the video was to focus on Crocodile Girl, a character played by Charlottesville performance artist Opal Lechmanski. Not wanting the shoot to become a super-spreader event, Tarbell took a variety of precautions over the course of its creation. “The challenge was producing a video while keeping everyone COVID-safe,” Tarbell said, “so most of it is just me on a single camera – no crew, mostly outdoors, and everyone as masked up and socially distant as possible.”
The resulting video is a travelogue down the streets of Charlottesville and Staunton that successfully encapsulates all the difficulties and harships this year has presented to us all, while also encouraging resistance, resilience, and a positive outlook. It begins with “Roaring 20s,” which immediately grabs a listener’s attention as Rose, sitting on a porch couch as Stallings strums next to her, sings, “She sold all of the records she’d collected just to get ahead of the rent. The year was 2020 and the sound was all your money being spent.”
Throughout “Roaring 20s,” Crocodile Girl attempts to interest passerby and people sitting on their porches in records from her collection, eventually setting up a lemonade stand on a corner with a crate of records (crate courtesy of long-gone Richmond record store Peaches — how many of us have kept our collections in Peaches crates over the years?).
As the music transitions to the song “Red,” a kid on a skateboard rolls up and starts flipping through Crocodile Girl’s records (she’s got some pretty good stuff — Husker Du, David Bowie, Tom Waits, The Isley Brothers) before settling on the first Pretenders album (an absolute classic, don’t even get me started). Of course, since he’s wearing a skirt, he doesn’t have his wallet with him, so he ultimately barters his skateboard and teaches Crocodile Girl to skate. It’s a heartwarming moment, even as it showcases the realities of COVID in 2020 in a variety of ways (skateboard kid, played by Lance Brenner, is wearing a mask, and at one point, Crocodile Girl watches footage of police violence at a protest on her phone).
Those realities segue nicely into Pablo’s star turn on “Arma De Moda.” This video mostly focuses on Shagwuf’s drummer as he walks the Charlottesville streets, standing beside colorful murals and, at one point, holding up a sign that reads “El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido” (those of you who’ve spent time protesting this year shouldn’t need me to tell you this means “The people united will never be defeated”). Interspersed throughout are shots of Crocodile Girl, now home by herself, watching more footage of violence at protests on her television, and having the sort of emotional reaction to the clips we can all probably see a bit of ourselves in. We also see some great footage of Shagwuf performing and Sally Rose dancing energetically to the music — a much-needed reminder of happier times.
The video and the EP both end with “Flood Song,” a beautifully elegaic song about the flood that hit Staunton this year, washing away not only a whole bunch of downtown businesses, including recording studios and restaurants, but also taking out Shagwuf’s van and multiple amps of theirs. The video switches between shots of Crocodile Girl walking down the main streets of Staunton, past the iconic Wright’s Dairy-Rite and other restaurants, and actual footage of Shagwuf’s van being destroyed by flood waters. The beauty this trio is able to wring out of a song about devastation on a personal level acts as a metaphor for the spirit we’ll all need to make it out the other side of this devastating era with our souls intact. Draw a bit of strength from Shagwuf’s “The Year Is 2020,” and stop by Bandcamp to get your own copy of Trendy Weapon with which to make it through the last few lame-duck weeks of the toughest year in living memory.
All photos by Rich Tarbell