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.

Wild Harbors: Official Website | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

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.

SHEL: Official Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | YouTube

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

CD Review: ‘The Laboratory Sessions’ by SHEL

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The Holbrook sisters are back with SHEL’s second musical offering, entitled The Laboratory Sessions.  After a period of braving the road on tireless tours in support of their first album, these four talented ladies from Fort Collins, Colorado have presented us with a new batch of concoctions.  Somehow they managed to find time to write music in between their gigs and rigorous workout competitions, at times being forces to compose while taking shifts behind the wheel.  But now the new release is upon us and I must say, it’s quite tasty!

Warning: Side effects may include extreme musical addiction and enjoyment.

It was sheer happenstance that I stumbled upon SHEL (Sarah, Hannah, Eva, and Liza), but I’m quite happy that I did.  Within two weeks of discovering their music I was watching them perform in Washington D.C. and didn’t even own their debut album until after the concert had wrapped up.  Since then I’ve had the honor of interviewing Hannah about the band and her own solo release, become even more of a fan, and thus have eagerly awaited this follow-up album since its announcement.  The ladies used to crowd-fund the LP, and provided a great number of rewards for supporting the effort.  What I especially liked was that they offered various release packages, ranging from the bare-bones digital album & commentary bundle, an all instrumental version of the album, as well as early demos and cell-phone recorded tastes of the songs as they were just coming into being.  From bud to blossom, and from digital to the kitchen sink, the ability to get inside this album and look around was vast.


The Laboratory Sessions, when compared to the self-titled debut, feels very organic.  While the previous release was fantastic and built one strong song upon the next, the new album feels like a more united, focused effort.  The quartet haven’t abandoned the folk-rock-pop amalgamated roots that they established from their outset, so no worries there.  But Eva said something that struck me in the commentary released alongside the work, saying that as she writes more and more music, she does so “to move people.  Not to be like, ‘Look what I can do,’ but ‘Look what you can feel.’”  And this album does that, backing away from some of the showier aspects of the debut, but brimming with emotion and experience.  Take for example “You Could Be My Baby,” which sounds like a near, dear relative of The Beatles’ “Come Together,” sung with a confidence previously unheard from the girls.  On the other end of the spectrum we have “I’m Just A Shadow,” as bleak and haunting as any dirge I’ve had the pleasure of hearing.  Of course, we can’t leave without a good ole fashioned drinking song, and “Moonshine Hill” comes to our rescue.  It’s a personal favorite, I must confess.

Some of you might say, “How can the album be a united, focused effort if it goes from confident to bleak to songs about drinking?”  Well, firstly, it’s one song about drinking.  Secondly, you should go listen to the first album.  Great release, but its songs range from the circus to owls to a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Battle Of Evermore” and then some, whereas this one focuses more on personal relationships, overcoming fears, and homesickness.  And alcohol, but that’s one song!  The only song which feels a little detached is “Lost Without You,” and this is because it features singer-songwriter Gareth Dunlop in a duet with Eva, as opposed to the four-piece Holbrook harmonies that we’ve come to know throughout the rest of the release.  But it’s a good song, so I can’t blame them for including it.


The Holbrook sisters have been busy in the last few years.  Not only have they done a ton of touring, but Hannah has released a solo piano EP, Eva has co-written several songs with the aforementioned Gareth Dunlop (the song “Hold On” made it into the movie The Best Of Me), and they have continued to write and create their own music videos for existing and new songs!  It’s amazing that they even had time to write this new album, but I suppose that’s why they sometimes chose to compose while driving from town to town.  I wouldn’t recommend trying that, kids.  The Laboratory Sessions is a welcome addition to SHEL’s growing catalog and that’s coming from a well-satisfied customer and fan.  Now is the perfect time for you to do a little experimenting of your own and see if a dash of SHEL cures your musical ills.  I’m not selling snake oil, I swear.


Buy the song, “I Was Born A Dreamer,” to help an animal in need: iTunes | Amazon
Buy the song, “You Could Be My Baby” at: iTunes
Buy the song, “When The Sky Fell” at: iTunes

For more on SHEL, visit:
Official Website

Interview with Hannah Holbrook of SHEL

Image above used with permission.  © Taylor Ballantyne.


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Last year, after becoming infatuated with learning the mandolin, I stumbled upon a young woman’s Youtube video in which she played Bach on an octave mandolin. Her name was Eva Holbrook, a member of the all-sister four-piece called SHEL from Fort Collins, Colorado. Shortly thereafter, I discovered that the group was playing at a venue just up the road in Washington D.C. I didn’t need to think very hard about attending, as I’d already been impressed by each of them via their homemade music videos which were posted online. Though the venue itself was questionable, they still put on an astounding show and all of them were very down to Earth when I approached them after the performance. We tossed around the idea of doing an interview and, after a few scheduling issues, I was finally able to ask the eldest Holbrook, Hannah, a few questions about the band and her new solo piano EP, Late Bloomer.

 Interview with Hannah Holbrook of SHEL on February 18, 2014.

All of you are accomplished players, but I know Liza was originally learning the harp before discovering her love for percussion. Did the rest of you immediately know the instruments you wanted to play, or was it more of a trial and error of love?

We all tried to start with guitar, but it didn’t really stick. Sarah and Eva play it now, along with bass and Eva plays cello. I picked piano and fell in love. I can’t seem to put that kind of time and energy into any other instrument.

Originally you four were a back-up band for your father’s music. You’ve also played with your brother, Isaac. Was it because of this upbringing that it was obvious you’d form a band with each other, or did some of you test the waters with other musicians before “coming back home”?

We had and still do have solo projects and little side projects here and there, but SHEL is a full time gig and we’ve been thinking about it that way for about 10 years.

Who came up with the idea to use each of your initials to form the band name? Were there any other band names thrown out there before “SHEL” was settled on?

I’m not sure who to give credit on this one. We were sitting around the kitchen table brainstorming a band name and someone, maybe mom, took all our initials and wrote them out in random order on a sheet of paper. We had HESL (in order of age), we had SEHL… meh… we had LESH… we had SHEL. Well, that makes the most sense.

All of you are, deservingly, endorsed by various instrument companies. How did you arrive at using the brands who sponsor you?

I think it all starts with word of mouth. I had been hearing about Kurzweil keyboards from a very young age. I tried out some other brands when I first started, but, being a pianist and a purist, I wasn’t satisfied with the fake piano patches. Nothing sounded remotely real until I tried out a Kurzweil 12 years ago at the recommendation of my father. I’ve been hooked ever since.

As you told me you’d be going by plane during this interview, I was wondering about instrument travel. I’ve heard horror stories about musicians who have their instruments mishandled by airline staff. Do you have any horror stories of your own in this matter, or tips for those musicians who are worried about keeping the tools of their trade safe?

No horror stories. We fly SouthWest 😉

And my advise for the worried traveler is pretty obvious: if your instrument is to big for the overhead bin, a flight case is always a good idea, or do what I often do as a keyboard player, back-line/rent your instrument and have it delivered to the venue.

How does the writing process work in SHEL? You mentioned on social media that you’re starting to write more songs together, so I take it that the dynamic is evolving?

Historically, Eva would write a song and bring the chords and lyrics to us. Then we’d each arrange our parts and go out and perform it. Now we all find ourselves sitting down and writing out the chords and lyrics together. It’s a different sound, a different style, and it’s been great learning to collaborate together with way.

You recently released a solo EP of piano compositions called Late Bloomer. The title is interesting because you’re the oldest sister. Can you tell us more about that release? What separates that music from the rest of SHEL’s writing?

This is a collection of pieces I’ve been working on for a couple years. Some of them I started in college, a couple of them I actually just finished days before recording. I played one of the compositions for one of my former piano teachers and she said: “Wow, Hannah! I didn’t know you had that in you. You really are a late bloomer.” She used to tell me that from time to time in high school… and when she said it that last time, I thought it was a fitting title for an EP that I would have liked to have released a few years ago, but I wasn’t quite ready. This is a very different style from SHEL’s writing. It’s influenced primarily by classical, jazz, and contemporary composers like Mozart, Rachmaninov, Chopin, Gershwin, and Ennio Morricone. The solo piano element also sets it apart.

SHEL - Hannah Holbrook - Late Bloomer

Whose idea was it to include “The Battle Of Evermore” by Led Zeppelin on the full-length album? Obviously it’s one of the greatest mandolin rock songs ever, so it makes sense, but was there a particular moment where you all decided it needed to be on the record?

Our dad kept telling us to learn it. Then a couple fans told us. Finally, Scott Borchetta with Big Machine suggested it. After we learned it, it felt like a natural fit.

What do you find yourselves doing as of late, alone or together, in between concerts to keep yourselves entertained?

There isn’t a lot of downtime these days. Music is very much our lives during the day and at night. But occasionally, we’ll sneak out for a movie. If the weather is nice – a hike, a run, some Ultimate Frisbee. And if we get a day off, we’ll be spending it with family or close friends catching up.

Why does Liza punch people when she sees a Dunkin Doughnuts?

It’s kinda like that Punch Buggy game where you punch someone when you see a Volkswagen Beetle.

As always, each of us is faced with the large, blank canvas of the future. What’s next for the ladies of SHEL?

We’re working on our second full length album right now. We’ll be in Nashville writing and recording that until June, then we’ll hit the road!

I want to take a moment to thank each of you, Hannah, for taking the time to answer these questions. To close, what one piece of advice would you give to yourself if you could go back and speak to yourself ten years ago?

I would have told myself to keep writing what I loved and not worry quite so much about trying to write what other people might want to hear. When you have something on your heart, it’s worth putting it out there.


For more on Hannah and SHEL, visit:
SHEL Official Website
Buy SHEL’s debut album: iTunes | Amazon | From The Band
Buy Hannah Holbrook’s Late Bloomer EP: iTunes | Amazon | From Hannah
SHEL on Facebook
SHEL on Twitter
SHEL on Youtube