Under the Willow / SHEL | Abbey Chicago | Review

Article Contributed by June Reedy | Published on Saturday, October 18, 2014

At the SHEL/ Under the Willow show at the Abbey Chicago on September 24th,  the crowd bubbled over as Erin Donovan spoke of her Irish ancestors and really anyone’s ancestors.  She was describing one of the first songs the band wrote together as the crowd nearly overpowered her amplification.  The song is called Heritage and the music is undeniably spiritual.

Do you remember Captain & Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together”? Picture that voice with new grass multi-instrumentalists that fill the room with their beginning strings.  Under the Willow is up and coming as they continue to change and rearrange who plays what, who sings what and where the jams will go.  No matter the distractions from the moderately filled club, the muse of the moment can draw attention from vocals alone.  This speaks to Under the Willow’s attention grabbing 4 member band.  It’s a joy to watch as the developing tricks come to fruition on stage.

Erin Donovan’s birthday is December 26th but she celebrates all year long.  Seemingly the crowd celebrates right there with her as she pours her heart into a violin and a microphone.  As Erin sings, she will clap her hands around the microphone, plug one nostril, and beat on her heart to give her vocals even more lift and distinction.  She seems totally at peace even with the next band loading in and the room filling up.  It’s their last few shows in their home city before becoming snow birds for the winter.

Something about knowing that they leave for warmer weather and the soul that they sing gives the distinct impression that this foursome is indeed living on love and music.  It’s inspiring to say the least.  The true criterion here however, is the quality of the music.  The elegance that Haley gives the banjo shines.  The artwork they are creating in both photographs (by Jay Miller) and their official debut video for “This is Why” is stunning.  It’s sweet with a definite stature. 

The new grass band gives us a reason to call them indeed NEW grass when they burst into a song called Roof with an almost grunge like Mudhoney sound coming from her elegant banjo, Pat’s guitar, and Joe’s flaming fingers on the mandolin.

“The American Dream has been sold. It was all just a marketing ploy.”

By the time Haley stepped up to the microphone, she had taken control and sang a crowd favorite, Our Time.  Under the Willow has been brought to you today by the lessons of sharing and sweet sacrifice.  They shine so bright, it will be amazing to see them return from their snowbird hiatus as the phoenix birds they are becoming.

In comes SHEL. Hailing from Fort Collins Colorado originally, you can tell they grew up there but probably have lived in their van for the past few years.  Their costumes were top notch steam punk styled feminine fancy.  It was 4 sisters having a tea party on stage and all were invited to join.  They opened with Lost at Sea. I wasn’t sure if they were still sound checking when the muddled mess came up with lights and a pure sound still and truly Celtic in nature played to a peak.  There was a definitely feeling of being lost at sea yet with a seraphim voice to lead the boat through troubled waters.  I felt at one, in pure bliss.  Almost as soon, my OCD realized that it was a Thursday night show and I had to find solid ground as there was no time off tomorrow.  This bliss could last for awhile. It was not a pretend tea party, SHEL is the real deal. 

Their music is tight.  Incredible quirky melodies were abruptly ended with each jam that neatly lasted just around 5 minutes apiece.  That was ideal for my Thursday night dilemma.  There is grounding to be found at this show after all.  The sound is so polished and seductive until they hit the moment when their drummer youngest sister, Leah, stepped out from behind the drum kit.  She beat boxed.  Not in a standard beat box way but in a way that indicated they grew up in the same city where Pretty Lights began.  This beat boxing was dub step with low lows and short break thumps unlike other beat boxers I have seen.   That’s not to mention that all the girls of SHEL are incredibly pretty.  A pretty beat boxer is not something you get to see on a normal Thursday night. 

This show covered the gamete of fun and flirty, fifties to twenties to nineties back to now.  Then they spoke of meeting Robert Plant and how unbelievably kind he was.  After that intro, they burst into No Quarter like Plant himself would have been proud.  If the music wasn’t so beautiful I would have thought I was watching the lovely ladies of Laugh In.  The crowd called and beckoned for more until the last song quietly set us all on our way.  The 4 sisters of SHEL sang acoustic with no accompaniment, The Stable Song by Gregory Alan Isakov.  The Boulder artist has a beautiful song to be sure but even he singing it with a guitar doesn’t compare to these four women singing harmony in a late night Chicago club.  They turned diamonds into gold.