SHEL at Jammin’ Java

It’s been six years since my wife and I braved a storm to see four sisters from Colorado play inside a D.C. barbeque restaurant and bar, putting on a fantastical show that left the both of us impressed.  And on August 29, we finally got to see them again.  The quaint quartet is called SHEL, and they returned to the area with a trip to Jammin’ Java in Vienna, VA, a cozy little concert hall and restaurant.  Like last time, we made a point of getting a seat up front.

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Warming the stage first was a self-described husband/wife alt-pop duo named Wild Harbors, composed of Chris and Jenna Badeker.  Armed simply with a guitar, two harmonious voices, and the occasional tambourine, they quickly turned heads with their storytelling-style performance.  The audience was moved from laughter, discussing the trials of spousal conflict in “House On Fire,” to tears with “Abigail,” about the girl who almost wasn’t.  Throughout their set, they spoke extensively about the changes that had occurred in their lives, and the importance of erecting monuments at those pivotal moments, whether through pictures, videos, or songs, to remember what led you to the path you’re on now.  Their debut album, Monument, is one of those markers, and it’s littered with pieces of life – as full and deep as could be expected.  If you’re searching for something honest and beautiful, seek them out.

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When I first saw SHEL live, I had perhaps three songs I was familiar with, and that was all I needed to convince myself they were worth seeing.  Fast forward and the spell of mysticism is still there, this time not due to my ignorance at our initial encounter, but due to the nature of these talented women.  I’m never quite sure what they’ll come up with next, but I can count on it being full of heart.  I think that’s due to their differences, each pouring what they love into the mixture, and out of that synergetic concoction comes creativity and love.  Eva, on vocals, mandolin, and the ‘E’ in SHEL (Sarah – Hannah – Eva – Liza), apologized for the group’s lengthy absence, but said that they needed time to work through personal struggles and to come together as sisters.  I took that comment, and the thrilling performance which followed, as affirmation of my assessment.

We were notified that quite a few things lay on the horizon for SHEL, including a single called “Rainbow” in September, a Christmas EP, another Spring-time EP, and a new full-length album sometime later next year.  What’s more, we were treated to a huge selection of that material, and not a dud in the mix.  Particular standouts for my wife and I included “Monster” and “Ordinary Fairytale Superhero Villain,” metaphoric and whimsical, which thankfully still hold a place on a future release despite naysaying by certain individuals beyond this foursome.  I’m hoping SHEL never let anyone else’s opinions outweigh their own artistic desires, because those songs were fantastic and I can’t wait to hear them again.

As with the last time we saw them, they once again broke out their haunting cover of Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle Of Evermore,” but on this occasion we were regaled with the time three of them had to ditch their sister and keyboard player, Hannah, in an airport to get a photo with Robert Plant.  Accordions and TSA apparently do not mix.  Perhaps more to the band’s surprise was when a woman yelled out a request for “Is The Doctor In Today” off their last full-length, Just Crazy Enough.  “We haven’t played that for at least a year,” Sarah, the violinist, informed her.  After discovering she’d flown in all the way from Colorado and had seen them play at a number of other venues, they acquiesced – “We hope this meets some expectation you have for it.”  To their credit, it sounded great – another satisfied customer!

If I had to pick a favorite part of the evening, I don’t think I could narrow it down to simply this-or-that song.  My favorite thing was how both bands took advantage of this intimate space to tell stories about the songs.  Everyone was so warm and welcoming, and the chemistry made the moments electric.  Of course, if you ask my wife, her favorite part was any moment that Liza was at the front of the stage with her djembe and electric kick drum pedal, not to mention her beat boxing escapades.  A close second, and this would be a personal problem, is that there was a second fellow there named Barry.  Or, perhaps I was the second fellow, for this Barry was quite known by the ladies in the band, and every time they referenced him I thought they were talking to me.  But I doubt you’ll experience that unusual circumstance.  What you should experience is seeing SHEL live.  Their current tour is limited to the Northeast of the United States, so catch them while you can – and stay on the lookout for a “Rainbow.”

CD Review: ‘Just Crazy Enough’ by SHEL

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I feel as though I’ve lost something… No, not lost, but forgotten something.  Something that was so present in my life once upon a time, but now has been buried under the burden of adulthood.  Each day passes before my eyes as I drone on, carrying around my list of priorities, expectations, and what-have-you’s.  I keep my regrets bundled in my back pocket so that I can’t help but sit askew.  Four extraordinary young women from Ft. Collins, Colo., have cleared that fog from my eyes, reminding me of my forgotten companion.  It’s child-like wonder, and it radiates through these songs as a ray of light through the morning mist.

Just Crazy Enough, the new album from the sister act known as SHEL, makes me smile.  That might sound like a rather plain statement, but it’s deeper than you may think.  This sophomore release is more than just a fun collection of tunes, though they bring them in spades.  The tracklisting overflows with a spirit that wraps you in a loving embrace, lifting you up to the rooftops and cradling you in its comforting reassurance.  It cracks open the shell of apathy and makes you grateful to be in this moment.  I can’t help but be sad due to all the time I’ve spent letting life beat me down, but I’m so happy to have found a momentary reprieve.

“Alright,” you say, “Barry has lost it.”  Fair enough, let us embark upon the finer details of this charming release.  For those who were fortunate enough to snag a copy of the group’s limited time fan-release, The Laboratory Sessions, you might notice a few familiar faces.  Three tunes have been overhauled for this release: “You Could Be My Baby,” which now pulsates with an even more resounding low end, reminiscent of the Beatles’ “Come Together;” “Moonshine Hill,” the Appalachian foot-stomper about being selective in our vices, now featuring a choral intro and extra guitar, bass, and background vocals that fill previously found airy space; and “Stronger Than My Fears,” the soft, finger-plucked guitar closer that now features subtle electronic, symphonic overtones, as well as chanting that brings to mind the African Savanna.

SHEL has always brought us interesting sounds and styles, touching on genres such as folk and classical, while rolling each song into an accessible, catchy package.  Here we find them going a step further, incorporating Liza’s deft beat-boxing [“Rooftop”] that previously was only displayed during their live performances.  Not only that, but after the inclusion of Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle Of Evermore” on their debut album, the ladies have decided to venture once more into rock tributes, presenting us with a truly chilling rendition of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.”  As Metallica has been one of my favorite bands for over 15 years, I’ll admit that it was difficult for me to hear it in such a strikingly different arrangement, but the Holbrook sisters have been so creative in their approach and I can’t fault their results.  While I wouldn’t put Just Crazy Enough head and shoulders above SHEL’s previous releases, it remains as stunning as all their work has been thus far.  If you’re anything like me, Just Crazy Enough is sure to put a smile on your face.

Buy Just Crazy Enough at:  iTunes | Amazon

For more on SHEL, visit:
Official Website