Review by Fred Rudofsky
A full spectrum of great music hit the stage of Club Helsinki on a Saturday night, with the unique pairing of SHEL, a four-sister acoustic group from Fort Collins, CO, and veteran West Coast roots rockers Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys. Whether seated or dancing, the crowd got their money’s worth, and it’s a safe bet they will be lobbying return dates by both bands.
Ranging in age from 18 to 23, the talented Holbrook sisters of SHEL – Sarah on violin; Hannah on keyboards and concertina; Eva on mandolin; and Liza on percussion and drums – quickly made an impression with their versatile vocal and instrumental arrangements, drawing upon their 2009 debut EP Try to Scream and their just-released eponymous album. “Mad King” featured intricate harmonies and a hand-drummed rhythmic pattern reminiscent of the subdudes, one of SHEL’s favorite bands. “Lost at Sea” blazed like a mountain-top party, Sarah’s eerie violin swooping over and against the insistent keyboards of Hannah. Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore” followed, and the sisters channeled Sandy Denny’s ethereal sound, trading verses and harmonies with ease and demonstrating some of Robert Plant’s swagger.
“Tuscany” showed off deep classical roots, and “The Man Who Was the Circus” rocked out Celtic style with some energetic, tasteful drumming by Liza. “Paint My Life” featured Eva’s deft electric mandolin playing, and striking shifts in volume and tone. After an unexpected but awesome beat box throwdown demonstration by Liza, SHEL closed out with a riveting “Try to Scream,” with the voices of Hannah and Eva taking the spotlight. The audience applauded fervently; new fans had been made in the span of an hour’s set, and the band mingled with all during the intermission.
Western swing, rockabilly, surf, jump blues, stone-cold country – for nearly 25 years, Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite have played it all with verve across the USA and Europe. “Heaven Is on the Way” from 2003’s It’s Time offered an immediate greeting to the Club Helsinki revelers, the song just bursting with cool guitar riffs by Ashley Kingman. “We know you women dig the bad boys!” exclaimed Big Sandy as he adjusted his acoustic guitar strap and microphone prior to counting off “Love That Man” (from 2006’s Turntable Matinee), a vocal tour de force for the leader and perfect showcase for the rhythm section of Kevin Stewart (upright bass) and Joe Perez (drums). “It’s Time” in title and spirit had the dance floor filled – even the gals from SHEL were out there bopping along.
Picking high points from the nearly 100 minute set is difficult, but a few songs deserve special note. “The Greatest Story Ever Told” followed by “Hey Low Down!” provided a wild combo that realigned some spines. “Jumpin’ from 6 to 6” was a roaring swing tune that had the crowd singing the chorus right back to an ever-smiling Big Sandy. Raising his glass to the audience and praising SHEL for their opening set (“Ask for them by name!”), Big Sandy delivered a wild “Tequila Calling” (from 2000’s Night Tide), prompting a swarm of frenzied dancers to show off their idiosyncratic moves that later culminated in a country dance-off during “My Eyes Are Open (But There Ain’t Nobody Home).” Taking a breather, Big Sandy turned the spotlight on his talented band; Kingman put on a clinic with the Merle Travis instrumental “Cannonball Rag,” and Stewart and Perez got in some mighty fine chops, too.
Even after 20 songs had the place drenched in sweat, the band retook the stage with Sarah and Eva Holbrook in tow, and obliged the audience with an encore for the ages. “Waltz of the Wind” began as a slow tune, then sped up as quickly as the smiles that were all around. Dancers rejoiced: the drums and bass were swinging; the guitar ripping; the fiddle soaring; the mandolin aching. Beaming with the love of music, Big Sandy stretched the final notes at the mic out the door and into the midnight air.
SHEL SET LIST
Lost at Sea
The Battle of Evermore (Led Zeppelin)
Like a Minded Fool
The Latest and Greatest Blueberry Rubberband
The Man Who Was the Circus
Paint My Life
(Liza’s beat box solo)
Try to Scream
BIG SANDY & HIS FLY-RITE BOYS SET LIST
Heaven Is On the Way
Love That Man
Have It Your Way, Baby
6 Foot Down
The Greatest Story Ever Told
Hey Low Down!
If You Fall Out of Love with Me
How Did You Love Someone Like Me?
Jumpin’ from 6 to 6
Just Like a Demon
Little Cabin Home on the Hill
My Eyes Are Open (But There Ain’t Nobody Home) (Glen Glenn)
Cannonball Rag (Merle Travis instrumental)
I Want You Baby (Billy Lee Riley)
Wishing Him Away
Jump Up the Blues
Waltz of the Wind (with members of SHEL)