Sarah Holbrook’s violin embellishments and solos colored and explored the expanse of each song elegantly or frenetically, as needed.
Old Rock House, St. Louis
Every now and then, you pick a winner. Sometimes you go bankrupt in the process, but that one victory makes it all seem worth it. And sometimes someone picks for you, sparing you the trial and error, and you can smugly enjoy the fruit of their generosity. This particular bill was the fruit of such generosity over the duration of my post-collegiate life. SHEL and Ross Christopher offered two distinct, but complementary sets. Their degrees of separation in my head made me assume they might have crossed paths before, but I don’t think that’s the case.
So how are these acts connected, at least in my head? The foundation I would like to use to build my argument is their prodigious musical talent, and a bent for self-reliance—but instead I’m going to provide a Six Degrees of Separation schema for you. An Eisley fan introduced me to SHEL a few years back. With Eisley being a band of home-schooled siblings, like SHEL, I can assume that was enough to lead to a few comparisons that got fans of one band to look into the other. One of the members of Eisley has worked with Sleeping at Last (aka Ryan O’Neal). Who else worked with Sleeping at Last? Ross Christopher. It just so happens that a few other artists I have featured while writing for PLAYBACK:stl worked with him, as well, and it is through them that I was most familiar with his talents as an violinist, arranger, and producer along the lines of Jeremy Larson (MUTEMATH, Sucre). This served as my introduction to Ross Christopher as a singer and songwriter. The pairing was happenstance, but a nice twist of fate.
I didn’t know what to expect from Christopher’s set as far as production, given the stage had been set for SHEL’s full-band set and the opener was playing solo. Had I been closer to the stage, I would have been tipped off that it was going to be more than a spare solo acoustic set. The thing about producers and arrangers is that their aptitude for layering and sculpting music is ever-present. Because of this, the advent of live looping sets them free to give you a glimpse into the architecture they construct when they put a song together. Using an array of loops of guitar, violin, and vocal harmonics, Christopher filled the Old Rock House with a wall of sound, all by himself. The range of intimacy and immediacy scaled up and down wit,h the emotional timbre of his performances. There was room for contemplation and melancholy and there were moments of reverence and exaltation.
Ross’s set drew largely from Ozark and Great Blue Heron, his most recent releases. There were key moments laden with intensity and catharsis, particular in light of the social upheaval of the last few weeks, which he acknowledged prior to a nuanced and emotionally charged cover of “Zombie” by the Cranberries. (I was wondering if that choice of covers would be redeemed, because it may forever be connected with Ed Helms’ rendition as Andy on The Office. My trepidation proved to be unfounded.)
Another highlight was Christopher’s “Infinity,” which was equally affective. He didn’t let that connection with the audience go to waste, and invited the crowd to sing along with him on “Veil,” which was uplifting and serene all at once, particularly when he introduced the chorus of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” for a few measures at its close. That call back was just enough to pay homage to what has become a true standard in the last 20 years, but not so much that he tempted the fate of audience fatigue, given how much that song has been covered in full since the late ’90s.
Christopher’s levity and humility were equaled only by his focus and skill, so when he closed out his set, the audience was as generous with their applause as he was with his talent. He made sure to let the crowd know that he’d heard SHEL’s soundcheck and that we were about to be awed. It strikes me that he was inspired by what he saw and heard, because he, too, delivered a convicted performance, all the while engaging the audience with the candor of someone who has perspective. It was, in a word, redeeming.
Given there was no need to break down one band’s gear to make way for the headliner, SHEL took the stage mere minutes after Christopher left the stage. Sarah, Hannah, Eva, and Liza Holbrook gathered the momentum of his set and elevated the heart rates of the audience by going directly into “Rooftop,” the lead single from their new album Just Crazy Enough, recorded in collaboration with Dave Stewart (Eurythmics). The song bounds with exuberance that showcases the potential SHEL can access whenever they choose. The contemporary appeal of “Rooftop” was telegraphed by “You Could Be My Baby,” another recent release, which immediately followed this it in the set. I think it’s fair to say “You Could Be My Baby” was a bridge from their more acoustic-leaning origins to a modern sense of adventure, especially when it got a new treatment for Just Crazy Enough, the name of which was taken from a line in the chorus. As a fan, I feared this one-two punch of high-energy material ran the risk of them peaking too early in the set, but for those who have been following SHEL since the Mad King EP or their self-titled debut, a treasure trove of exciting material was waiting in the wings.
The wonderful thing about SHEL is that each member excels at her artistry, and they use their exceptional song craft to showcase this in a fitting context. Their vocal harmonies and exchanging leads never seem forced or showy. Sarah’s violin embellishments and solos colored and explored the expanse of each song elegantly or frenetically, as needed. She never sounded overwrought, and her parts never felt forced into an arrangement without purpose.
Hannah’s piano, keys, and accordion parts were eloquent and varied, which is a heck of a feat given the limited room on the mix with so many other instruments in the upper range. In addition, since SHEL isn’t touring with a bass player, she also provides many bass melodies, so the dexterity and coordination she had to display was multiplied.
Whether she’s playing guitar or mandolin, Eva’s skill and swagger don’t waver. Her coordination and precision are obvious, but it’s uncommon to see such a combination of gracefulness and groove from someone so skilled as a player and singer. “New”-grass allows for more players to showcase that rare combination of that these days, but I have yet to see anyone put it to better use.
And then there’s the show-stealer, Liza, who handles percussion masterfully, be it behind the kit, with hand drums, or using just a mic and the whole of Liza’s person. Liza’s beat-boxing appears on Just Crazy Enough, but the skill level she’s achieved isn’t showcased at its fullest. There are crowd shot videos of her solos, but hearing it live over a well-mixed club PA is the only way to do it justice. Ginger Baker refers to what she does as “having time”: You either have it, allowing for you to be a great rhythmic musician, or you don’t. Liza has time in spades, with syncopation and rhythmic mastery at Super-Saiyan levels.
When you take that level of talent and apply it to incredible songs like “The Man Who Was the Circus,” “Lost At Sea,” “Freckles,” “When the Dragon Came Down,” “The Wise Old Owl,” “Moonshine Hill,” “Is the Doctor In Today,” and “Lost As Anyone,” along with a bevy of other great tunes that make a set breathe with an emotional ebb and flow, it makes for an enthralling night of music. It’s the sort of acoustic alchemy that makes a story like the Pied Piper more probable than fantastical.
I find it fitting that, between their self-titled debut and Just Crazy Enough, SHEL delivered a limited-release album for fans titled The Laboratory Sessions—since they’ve formulated a recipe for musical enchantment. | Willie Edward Smith
Catch SHEL on tour this summer.
07.28 | Watermelon Wednesdays, Williamsburg, MA
07.29 | One Longfellow Square, Portland, ME
07.30 | Ossipee Music Fest, Hiram, ME
08.05 | Arise Music Festival, Loveland, CO
08.06 | Rhythm & Brews, Manhattan, KS
08.07 | Rhythms on the Rio, South Fork, CO
08.13 | Bohemian Nights, Fort Collins, CO
09.01 | James Ranch, Durango, CO
09.02 | Center for the Arts, Crested Butte, CO
09.18 | Stargazers Theater, Colorado Springs, CO
09.24 | Levitt Pavillion , Arlington, TX
09.27 | Rhatigan Student Center, Wichita State University, Wichita, KS