Summit County-based quintet Shaky Hand String Band talks bluegrass, touring and the art of music
Mountains. Trains. Love. Dogs. Rivers. Wind. Beer. Rain.
The Shaky Hand String Band makes music about anything that makes them happy, and judging by the stomping boots and twirling bodies on any dance floor they play in front of, that happiness is infectious.
The Summit County-based bluegrass/jam string quintet has cultivated a following in town while touring the country with a big, bright sound that speaks from the heart of the High Country.
The Summit Daily caught up with the group to preview their show at Rocky Mountain Underground in Breckenridge on Friday night, their last show in Summit before hitting the road for a few months.
The band is made up of Jess Rose Moidel (fiddle), Patrick O’Halloran (banjo), Todd Webster (mandolin), Nick Beato (bass) and Loren Zyniecki (guitar). All but one live in Summit County while not touring. Shaky Hand formed two years ago when Moidel and O’Halloran started collaborating, picking up the other members along the way through travel and serendipity.
Moidel said that their group has the sound and spirit they’ve all been striving for, with differently shaped parts forming a beautiful whole. When you’re on the road for at least 100 gigs a year, Moidel said, a band turns into a family.
“It’s like being in a five-person relationship,” Moidel noted. “You’re a family, and there’s the reality of traveling in a van together, living together, getting along, overcoming obstacles and meshing five very strong personalities. We all have strengths and weaknesses and we feed off each other. Instead of worrying about the weakest link, I like to think we’re always as strong as our strongest link.”
Every member plays, sings and writes their own songs, including tracks like “Huckleberry,” “Hometown” and “Shadow on the Wall.” The lyrics mesh Appalachian soul with vibrant stringmanship and an improvisational spirit. While they don’t play bluegrass exclusively, O’Halloran said it appeals to their styles the most because of how deceptively complex and rich the genre is.
“It was pretty quick for me to get into bluegrass, but it can be an acquired taste for some,” said O’Halloran, who turned away from a potential career in marketing to make music his life. “Even though it seems very ‘hillbilly’ at times, the music itself is very sophisticated, complicated, difficult, fast and energetic.”
For Moidel, a classically trained musician who was mentored by late local music legend Arnie J. Green, it’s the ability to create rich, layered music from simple building blocks that makes bluegrass appeal to her.
“Part of my love for bluegrass is the organic-ness and simplicity of it,” Moidel said. “Classical and jazz has a lot of different roles and rigid structure, and it’s harder to really make your own. But with bluegrass and its more basic structure, you can let it become anything you want it to be.”
O’Halloran said that the band never plays the same song the same way twice, which is why they hesitate to label themselves exclusively bluegrass. Sometimes they just go where the crowd and music leads them, with scripted songs turning into full-blown jam sessions.
Shaky Hand appreciates how new people from all over the world float through Summit’s resort towns, giving each local gig a particular flavor and set of faces that keep the energy bubbling.
But while they love calling Summit home, the thirst for variety keeps the band touring across the country.
“Each crowd brings a different energy, and you definitely feed off it and bring something new to the stage every time,” O’Halloran said.
Shaky Hand is not signed to any label yet, and while they aspire to get signed one day, they’re happy with the control they have booking and managing themselves.
“When you sign with a label, you lose a little bit of control over doing things on our own terms,” O’Halloran said. “That’s why I love doing the booking, so I can pick the venue and crowds to find the right fit. Part of the success with touring is the ability to have discretion over where and to whom we play. That way we know the people we’re playing to will love it.”
Whatever gig they play, the band has a pretty simple mission statement: Bring the dance party.
“If people are willing to come out and have a good time, and want to dance, we deliver that night in, night out,” O’Halloran said.
Moidel added that the band always strives to play what people want to hear, as the energy from the crowd is important for the synergy of the band.
“If people are coming out to party, the dance party happens, always,” Moidel said. “But if it’s a sit-down crowd that wants beautiful, slower music, we’ll give them that. We’re always going to be us, but we also play to whatever the audience is asking for.”
As artists, Shaky Hand also feel they serve a higher purpose — as storytellers and carriers of oral traditions.
“Musicians have been traveling troubadors throughout all of history, who carried words around the world,” Moidel said. “But you need a reason to keep grinding and travelling. Why travel and give words if you don’t carry a message?”
Shaky Hand String Band will be playing at 7 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 24 at Rocky Mountain Underground, 114 S Main Street in Breckenridge. The group will be on tour until they return to Summit for Lostober Fest at Broken Compass on Oct. 6. They will also be playing pre-shows for Leftover Salmon at HighSide Brewery on Oct. 30 and 31. Their first album, “Two Miles High,” is available on iTunes, Spotify, and through their website, ShakyHandStringBand.com.
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