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By Crista Munro
Special to The PREVIEW
Spring is in the air, which means it is time to start looking forward to summer music festivals on Reservoir Hill. FolkWest has two very amazing events planned for this summer; the first one is the ninth annual Pagosa Folk ‘N Bluegrass festival, which takes place June 6-8.
This year’s lineup comprises 16 of the most talented music ensembles hailing from all over the United States: Peter Rowan’s Twang an’ Groove (featuring Yungchen Lhamo), the Claire Lynch Band, the John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band, the Tony Furtado Trio, MilkDrive, Cahalen Morrison and Eli West, The Steel Wheels, Pierce Pettis and Grace Pettis, Shook Twins, the Jon Stickley Trio, Finnders and Youngberg, The Railsplitters, Moors and McCumber and this week’s featured bands: The Deadly Gentlemen and SHEL.
The high-altitude town of Fort Collins is abundant in bicycles, awash in craft beer and rich in arts of all kinds. Understanding the town’s unique cultural brew begins (but only begins) to explain the novel sound of SHEL.
Four sisters, raised in an atmosphere of creative freedom and diligent study, have honed their musical skills surgically sharp and blended their personalities and visions into a unified whole. They are a vocal group with outstanding instrumental capabilities and an instrumental group with a thrilling vocal attack. From their fetching, unpredictable songs to their whimsical, hand-made top hats, SHEL makes a profound impression, something they are doing to growing crowds and critical acclaim.
Sisters Sarah, Hannah, Eva and Liza were born within five years of each other. Raised and home-schooled by a professional songwriter father and an artist mother, they dove into music young.
Hannah was first to take classical lessons on piano. Then it was Sarah on violin, Liza on harp and Eva on mandolin. Liza switched to the drums upon discovering her passion for polyrhythm. Then, in the early 2000s, they started working up and performing songs with their father. Over time, Eva stepped forward as the lead vocalist. Andrew Holbrook with SHEL became SHEL with Andrew Holbrook — and then just SHEL.
A friend of the family made a connection with Grammy-winning producer Brent Maher, an artist development guru with a long track record of hit singles and artistic breakthroughs. Over three years of unhurried experimentation and recording, SHEL completed two EPs and grew immeasurably. Now, their most complete and thought-out work to date is here in the form of a self-titled, debut album.
Nestled within SHEL’s enveloping sound, wisps of folk revival, vaudeville, renaissance fairs and steam-punk esthetic blur around one another. Allusions abound to their core influences — The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Harry Nilsson and acoustic super-group Strength in Numbers — but you’ve never heard this before. Tracks such as “Tuscany” borrow liberally from their classical training, yet there’s nothing ponderous or unapproachable about them. “The Wise Old Owl” showcases their daring, fanciful vocal arrangements. They revel in strong dynamics, so a single song like “Stained” can grow from airy lace to a driving, white-water rush. They are richly feminine, but they don’t shy from covering Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore.” Above all, there is variety and creativity. Pure acoustic tone is best when it is best, but if an electric mandolin or special effect is called for, they let the song dictate the production.
SHEL has achieved many benchmarks that point to a full and fruitful career ahead. They’ve played public radio’s Etown, Echoes, South by Southwest, Nashville’s Music City Roots, Lilith Fair and numerous other distinguished festivals. In addition, they have songs in national television ad campaigns for Splenda, Glade and a song featured in CBS series, “Jersey Girl.” One does not have to be floating on the updraft of their blended voices to predict a bright future for SHEL.
SHEL will be back for their first festival appearance since 2012, playing the festival main stage on Sunday, June 8, at 1:30 p.m.
The Deadly Gentlemen
Roll Me, Tumble Me, the Deadly Gentlemen’s third album and their Rounder Records debut, boasts 10 winsome examples of their playfully irreverent, vibrantly rootsy songcraft. Although the Boston-based quintet employs acoustic guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin and double bass — a lineup that’s usually associated with traditional bluegrass — their music defies conventional genre restrictions, filtering a bottomless assortment of influences through their own decidedly distinctive songwriting sensibility and uncanny instrumental rapport. The result is timelessly resonant music that is rooted in tradition, yet effortlessly contemporary and boundlessly entertaining.
Throughout “Roll Me, Tumble Me,” the beguilingly melodic, emotionally evocative tunes match banjoist/vocalist/songwriter Greg Liszt’s lilting melodies and pointedly poetic lyrics with his bandmates’ eloquent musicianship and unconventional vocal blend to bring his compositions to life, reflecting the unique individual and collective backgrounds that have contributed to the Deadly Gentlemen’s evolution from quirky side project to singular musical force.
The Deadly Gentlemen’s members all led eventful individual musical lives before they joined forces. In addition to touring and recording extensively with Crooked Still, Greg Liszt attended college at Yale and earned a Ph.D. from MIT in molecular biology. His innovative four-finger picking technique helped him to win a place as a member of Bruce Springsteen’s live band for Springteen’s Seeger Sessions tour.
Mike Barnett began his career as a child fiddle prodigy, touring with bluegrass legend Jesse McReynolds at the tender age of 15. He also studied at Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music and excelled as a jazz violinist, and his world-class talents have won him gigs as a member of the David Grisman Quintet and the Tony Trischka Band.
Mandolinist Dominick Leslie is another former child prodigy, having achieved a series of career milestones before reaching the age of 16. More recently, he won considerable attention for his live appearances with banjoist Noam Pikelny, the Infamous Stringdusters and the Grant Gordy Quartet.
In contrast to his bandmates’ backgrounds in acoustic music, guitarist Stash (short for Stanislaw) Wyslouch grew up on heavy metal before submerging himself in bluegrass and country. His history in hard rock still manifests itself in his propensity for wringing unexpected sounds out of his guitar and screaming at the top of his vocal range. His resume also includes membership in Eric Robertson and the Boston Boys, as well as Blue Moose and the Unbuttoned Zippers.
Bassist and singer Adam Chaffins, the newest member of the Deadly Gentlemen, has toured worldwide with Susan Werner, the Belfry Fellows, World Party, the Carter Brothers and many others. Originally from Kentucky, Adam holds a music degree from Morehead State University and currently lives in Nashville, Tenn.
When Liszt first hooked up with the original members of the band in 2008 to record the first Deadly Gentlemen project, “The Bastard Masterpiece,” the music they came up with was an experimental mix of spoken-word vocals and banjo-driven grooves that Liszt now describes as “Eminem meets the Soggy Bottom Boys.”
By the time the current lineup solidified in time to record the 2011 followup “Carry Me to Home,” the group’s style had begun to evolve towards the sound that’s featured on “Roll Me, Tumble Me,” reflecting the five musicians’ wide range of interests and diverse assortment of personalities.
“It’s very much been a developing project, and it’s evolved into something that feels more natural and less like an experiment,” says Liszt, explaining, “It started as an arty side-project to our other bands, and the songs on The Bastard Masterpiece were basically old bluegrass songs that we turned into extended poems with groove-based banjo music. There was a big evolution when we recorded “Carry Me to Home,” which had kind of a gang-vocal style, with all sorts of coordinated shouting, rapping and singing. Now we’ve evolved from there into something that’s a little closer to conventional song structure.”
The Deadly Gentlemen’s growth into a formidable creative unit and engaging, uplifting live act — along with the expanded fan base and growing critical acclaim that have accompanied the band’s musical development — eventually led to the busy musicians making a conscious choice to commit the bulk of their energies to the group.
“There was a point in 2011 when we all sat down and decided that we wanted to make the Deadly Gentlemen our main focus, and that we needed to go on tour and get our chops up and figure out the best way to deliver this music. We all agreed that if we all just got into the van, it would go somewhere, and it has.”
Indeed, “Roll Me, Tumble Me” neatly demonstrates that the Deadly Gentlemen’s remarkable creative chemistry is too eclectic and unruly to be contained within a single genre, and that the joy and intensity that they put into their work is contagious.
“The Deadly Gentlemen is very much a group of personalities, and everybody in the band is highly individualistic,” Liszt notes, adding, “Sometimes being in this band feels like being in the kind of sitcom you would come up with if you were trying to fictionalize a band with five extremely exaggerated characters. It definitely adds a lot of interest to our daily life, and there are moments where I wonder if I should be acting more like a dad. But there’s definitely a very deep fellowship — some might say Bromance — between the five of us.
“We all have similar tastes, and all five of us have chosen a similar sort of life path,” he concludes. “We’ve all chosen a certain commitment to this kind of music and the lifestyle that goes along with it, and we’re all very much on board with the mission of the Deadly Gentlemen. We’re committed to being in the kind of band that tours fulltime and makes a series of albums over a long period of time, and going wherever that path takes us.”
This summer, that path will bring them to Pagosa Folk ‘N Bluegrass, where they will play the main stage on Sunday, June 8, at 3 p.m.
Pagosa Folk ‘N Bluegrass is supported in part by funding from Colorado Creative Industries, a state agency whose mission is “to promote, support and expand the creative industries to drive Colorado’s economy, grow jobs and enhance our quality of life.”
In February, FolkWest launched a brand new website that is extremely easy to navigate and features hundreds of photos from past festivals. Tickets and information are available online at the website, www.folkwest.com, or by calling (877) 476-4672. Children 12 and under receive free admission to the festival when accompanied by an adult.
There are a few volunteer positions remaining for the upcoming festival; if you would like more information, please see the website or call FolkWest.
(SHEL and the Deadly Gentlemen provided biographical information for this story.)