Blue Bayou Club, Hillsborough
with Robert Griffin, Stu Cole and Cecil Johnson
Thursday, Nov. 30, 8:30 p.m.
"My sister nicknamed me Halloween. It turns out it was a good nickname," says Wendy Shadburn, better known in these parts as Taz Halloween. "I'm several people rolled into one, all of 'em very real on any given moment."
Halloween came out of the womb singing. She developed her "adult tantrum" style ("I scream a lot," she admits) as a 17-year-old high school student in her hometown of Savannah, Ga.
Friend Ron Parks' band Bro T Holla was breaking up when she and her sister Taffy asked if they could join. As a member of the revamped Hola band, she found her true calling. She developed her multimedia personality, Taz Halloween, soon after her family moved to Chapel Hill in 1974. "The family moved around a lot, but I kept finding out where they were," she jokes.
Though she never attended college, she found out non-students could fill in on college radio on holidays. She was weathergirl Wendy Weather on UNC's student radio station, WXYC, before becoming DJ Taz Halloween. Her stage show morphed from Music to Spread Rumors By to Music to Spread Peanut Butter By but eventually became Carnival of Nightmares. Her performance approach—slightly psychedelic, somewhat spooky—sprang from that.
"It's kind of like a cheap version of a rock video," Halloween says of her presentation. Halloween sings over tapes of herself, as well as samples of people like Bessie Smith. A slide show plays in the background. A friend sits onstage with a pet boa constrictor around his neck. "I guess it's kinda '60s, but I don't have these weird amoebas dancing around on the screen or anything. I wish I did."
But that's one of half a dozen of Halloween's personas. She can also be Kitty Box of Kitty Box & the Johnnies, a country quintet named for her shared birthday with one country icon, Johnny Cash. That project gets labeled alt country, but that makes Halloween cringe. She prefers a more down-home label.
"Grits and biscuit music, or beer and grits music," she laughs. "Grittin' your teeth music, pissed off but funny. It's s'posed to be funny."
The gritted teeth come from the heartbreak that inspired the band's music. "I was dating this person, and when we had our heartbreak, it just so happens we listened to Dwight Yoakam a lot together," Halloween explains. "So I just realized that any song I wrote about heartbreak had to be in a country vein."
But country heartbreak isn't Halloween's sole specialty. She was a sultry swamp witch in Mel Melton's music video for Papa Mojo's Roadhouse, appearing as one of Melton's backing choir, The Wicked Angels, on record as well. She sings with Charles Pettee in Folk Psalm and with pianist Robert Griffin. She's popped up onstage with Jon Shain, Katharine Whalen, John Howie Jr. and Dexter Romweber. Disguised as Elvis Bustello, she plays the Eno River Festival with the Red Clay Ramblers.
Despite her wide range of vocal accomplishment, Halloween doesn't rate herself very highly as a singer. "It's therapeutic. I'm not a good singer. I think I reach into the depths of my humor and my pain and just bring it out to the surface and purge it all," she says, laughing. "Unfortunately, innocent victims get slaughtered."
Collaborator Robert Griffin disagrees: "She really doesn't understand how wonderful she is. She doesn't understand why she's so special. The rest of us work really hard to earn one stripe, and she's born with 12."
She's been performing with Griffin since the early '80s as the torch singer in a jazz duo, but he says her gifts were apparent when they toured France in 1989. "I've never been treated like that in my life. The French loved her so much it was red-carpet treatment every night," he says. "I'm hearing the same songs on this tour every night, and at some point, the hair's standing up at the back of my neck. I'm completely taken out of my comfort zone. And that just doesn't happen."
Halloween takes folks out of their comfort zone with her abuse of lyrics on standards. Griffin chuckles as he talks about her take on "Ain't Misbehavin'," popularized by Fats Waller in 1943: "Instead of 'Ain't Misbehavin', it's 'Ain't Masturbatin': 'Savin' all my love for you, baby/ I ain't masturbatin'."
Even when she's not messing with the lyrics, Halloween gets the crowd's attention. Shady Grove founder Charles Pettee says she's his not-so-secret weapon in his band Folk Psalm. Pettee calls her a world-class singer, one of the few who could share the stage with Aretha Franklin and be both deserving of the space and welcomed by Franklin. "There are plenty of pop stars that we can think of that would not, should not be in that position," he says. "But Taz could be right there. People would not know her from Adam and they would love it. She's an unsung singer."
But Halloween isn't too worried about the accolades. She jokes about a recent trip to Hollywood to visit a friend working as a costumer in movies. It didn't quite pan out. They didn't meet producers, but she was introduced to Beck. And instead of talking about her career with him, they talked about Dexter Romweber, one of his heroes.
Back home, she's considered a local hero by her peers. "She's got that primal soul thing," Pettee says. "You know it's real when you hear it. There's some sort of emotional connection, an emotional well that she draws from that just resonates with anyone who hears her."
Griffin says she's the best singer he's ever heard. But it's Pettee who pays her the ultimate compliment, citing the quality that endears her to him and to all who know her: "Her heart," he says fondly, "is as big as her voice."