Grandpaboy is Paul Westerberg, which used to be a bit of a secret when the alter ego first made its appearance (except to folks who obsessively follow all things Westerberg), but isn’t so much of a secret now. These days, despite very tongue-in-cheek quotes for the press, Westerberg is pretty open about the fact that his Grandpaboy alias lets him release more material than could under his own name alone. Plus, Grandpaboy gives Westerberg a chance to give his musical id a little more leash. On 2002’s Stereo/Mono set, it wasn’t always so easy to tell the difference—it pretty much all sounded like Westerberg was trying out for a Stones cover band.
So, to paraphrase Grandpaboy’s own promotional materials—what the hell is he doing on the same label as blues giants like R.L. Burnside, Solomon Burke, and Junior Kimbrough? Well, this time around, Grandpaboy is possessed by the spirit of the blues in all of its sloppy, awkward, tin-roof-rattling glory. It’s Westerberg bashing his way through loud, bluesy numbers with wild abandon.
Ironically, it’s also more fun than Come Feel Me Tremble Westerberg’s recent release under his own name.
On the face of it, that doesn’t sound right. Come Feel Me Tremble is Westerberg being the Westerberg of recent years, the Westerberg that emerged from his basement rejuvenated and appreciated. Besides, Westerberg has only shown mere flashes of musical appreciation for the blues in the past—you’d never expect him to end up on a Bukka White tribute album or something. In print, though, he’s often stated that the blues is one of his refuges when the radio overflows with a new generation of Paul Westerbergs. Plus, Dead Man Shake finds him approaching a lot of blues forms through the same filter that heroes like Chuck Berry, the Stones, and the Faces used before him.
Things get off to a rousing start with Westerberg’s ode to his hometown, “MPLS”, which bounces on a swaggering riff that’s part Chuck Berry and part vintage Sun Records. “Do Right in Your Eyes” switches gears, going for a finger-picked blues feel, with distant production that sounds like it might have been found in a dusty corner of the Chess vaults. For “Vampires & Failures”, Westerberg drops the blues persona completely in favor of a chunky post-Replacements riff and one of his better nighttime images in recent memory (plus insistent amp buzz that sounds like an electric shaver). Already, in the span of three songs, Dead Man Shake has shown more variety than the straightforward rockers ‘n’ ballads feel that characterizes Come Feel Me Tremble. By this time, Westerberg’s also shown himself to be a guitarist with a little more nimbleness and variety in his fingers than his last few releases would lead you to believe.
From there, Westerberg cruises through more blues (“No Matter What You Say” has a nice warm country-blues vibe), more rockabilly-laced rockers (“Cleaning House” sounds like the Honeydrippers got lost in CBGB’s), and few covers. Of those covers, his attempts at John Prine’s “Souvenirs” and Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome” come across like the wobbly tributes the Replacements tossed off onstage during their glory days. Neither, though, prepares you for the unselfconscious tenderness that permeates his supper-chord assault on the old Rat Pack standard “What Kind of Fool Am I?” What starts off sounding like a bad 3 a.m. whim nearly ends up sounding like Westerberg’s most sincere vocal on the whole record. Its only competition is the potent combo of “O.D. Blues” and “Dead Man Shake”.
“O.D. Blues” recounts an overdose that’s foiled only by a phone call by the narrator’s young son. Played in a needly rockabilly style, the song finds Westerberg chirpily singing lines like “made me fight and pull myself up and heave my guts out” and “next time I O.D. baby, I’m gonna wear a dirty shirt”. I’ve read nothing of any overdoses in Westerberg’s recent past. Befitting a man of his intense need for privacy, Westerberg’s private life is a bit of a closed book to the rest of the world, so any speculation based on mere song lyrics is pretty dangerous and insubstantial. Still, the level of lyrical detail and the presence of Westerberg’s trademark off-handed wit (“Whatever happened to Paul? / I don’t know / He fell in with bad companions / And he lived happily ever after”) make for some uneasy listening. Right on its heels is “Dead Man’s Shake”, which barges in on a keening guitar riff that gets right to the pleasure point in your brain that only good rock guitar seems able to reach. Its lyrics consist of little more than “Do the dead man’s shake, shake” and passing references to alcohol, but Westerberg’s approach is nearly frenzied. It’s the sound of a man engaged in gleeful defiance.
Perhaps that’s what’s so endearing about Dead Man’s Shake: defiance. That and a touch of meanness, something that’s often run like a subtle current through Westerberg’s most clever lyrics. Throughout this Grandpaboy exercise, on an album that’s supposedly removed from what Paul Westerberg is officially doing, the listener repeatedly comes across Paul Westerberg as most of us know him from his music. The blues romps allow him to trade in sly insults and innuendo (“I didn’t sleep with your wife / No, not one g——-n wink” from “No Matter What You Say”, “Wipe your lips on my mouth / When you shake your hips you’re cleanin’ house” from “Cleaning House”, or “You’re always tryin’ to drag me down to your level / I’d love to lay you out with a shovel” from “Do Right in Your Eyes”). Heck, the seemingly throwaway bravado of “Bad Boy Blues” is a better fit for Westerberg than either “Dirty Diesel” or “Wild & Lethal” from Come Feel Me Tremble. For whatever reason, the low profile, low-pressure nature of Dead Man’s Shake has allowed Westerberg to create an album that kicks the stalls better than the real Paul Westerberg disc.