No one needs to encourage the members of SHEL to come out of their shells. Legion Arts presented the band at CSPS in Cedar Rapids’ New Bo District on Saturday night (May 13), and SHEL pleased the crowd with two sets of music and funny, if sometimes awkward, banter.
In the early going, SHEL brought to mind Red Molly, a virtuosic trio of female folk artists whose vocals are impeccable. While the four-member SHEL is younger and has a hipper aesthetic (black graphic t-shirts were the garb of the night), the beautifully crafted and often haunting vocals supported by a mandolin and violin place the band in musical proximity to Red Molly.
But SHEL — the name is an acronym of the first names of the Holbrook sisters who make up the band: Sarah, Hannah, Eva and Liza — brings more rock and roll to the stage. Indeed, when the band covered Led Zeppelin’s “Battle of Evermore” in the second set, I realized much of what had come before fit squarely in that space — off-kilter but carefully constructed songs with dark or mysterious themes that varied from the quiet and mournful to the hard driving and powerful.
SHEL also has a peppy, poppy side that lends the band’s sets some variety and levity. For example, “Freckles,” which the band performed late in the first half of the show, reset the tone after a couple of hard rocking numbers.
Eva, the band’s lead singer and mandolinist, is understandably often the center of attention. With her mop of red hair and a star affixed to her cheek, she draws the eye; with her smoky but sweet vocals and her skill on mandolin and guitar, she draws the ear.
Hannah, on keys (including accordion), and Sarah, on violin, are both strong players whose vocals blend well with Eva’s. But a case could be made that it is Liza, on percussion, who truly shapes the band’s distinct sound.
Whether she is playing djembe and an electronic drum pad, a full drum set, or beatboxing, Liza brings a variety of colors to the music. Her beatboxing feature would be the envy of many a vocal percussionist and her creativity on set was always on display without being intrusive. As an added bonus, she’s a heck of a stick twirler.
The band delivered a satisfying evening of music, performing seven songs on each side of the intermission, plus a single encore. That final number, “When the Dragon Came Down,” written by Eva and inspired by the landscape near the band’s Fort Collins home, highlighted the themes and musicianship that had underpinned the entire performance.