1st and 3rd Mondays of each month, at Firebox Restaurant, 539 Broad St., Hartford, (860) 246-1222, fireboxrestaurant.com; 2nd and last Mondays of each month, at the Main Pub, 306 Main St., Manchester, (860) 647-1551, mainpub.com
It's kind of hard not to get hyperbolic about the Shinolas. The Hartford Americana and roots quartet might as well have been genetically engineered for awesomeness. They're excellent performers and charismatic showmen. Their professional resumés read like textbook examples of accomplished career musicians. (Guitarist and singer Jim Chapdelaine has pulled down 12 Emmys for his TV composing. Meanwhile, drummer Lorne Entress' litany of sideman and costarring gigs is a who's-who of folk-rock, blues, R&B … you get the picture.) The Shinolas were Advocate Grand Band Slam winners the very same year they formed (Best Country, 2009). They destroy, man. They are American rock destroyers, polite as you'll ever meet.
I got on the phone with Chapdelaine and it was like catching up with an old friend. He explained to me that it's a time of unexpected growth for the Shinolas, who just recently began residencies at two new venues. For years their Monday-night sets took place in the window niche of Tapas in downtown Hartford. But after a "weird series of gut feelings," as Chapdelaine explains it, they decided to seek a new home.
The Shinolas' new homes — Firebox and the Main Pub — are excellent places to catch local shows. I've long touted the Main Pub as one of the best rooms for live music in the state. Their stage, seating arrangements, and sound system are all thoughtfully done. And Firebox has quickly become known for combining an intimate setting with amazing food and drink.
As for the Shinolas themselves, roots and Americana may be in vogue right now, but it's refreshing to see seasoned players do the voodoo, especially when so many youngbloods and indie newcomers seem overeager to worship at the altar. The band's setup is something special. Chapdelaine handles guitars and most vocal duties, and the quality of his guitar tone gives a peek into his craftsman's approach toward record production. (This year alone, he's mixed records by Keb' Mo', the Smithereens, Shelby Lynne, and the Wailin' Jennys.) Paul Kochanski alternates between electric and upright bass, creating a much more soulful low end than most rock groups employ. Ed Iarusso is the group's dedicated pedal steel player, giving the underutilized instrument tons of room to shine. And on drums, Entress brings his aforementioned multigenre proficiency. They put him through his paces, too. Listeners can expect to hear everything from classic rock (Neil Young) to early punk (Iggy Pop) to recent alt-country (Ryan Adams). "Anything can happen," says Chapdelaine. "Last week we were playing, and in mid-song I ended up playing the beat from [Foster the People's] 'Pumped Up Kicks,' and everyone else launched into it. We somehow pulled it off because between us we knew enough of the lyrics."
The Shinolas' live show is also noteworthy for constantly featuring guest stars. The band members' prestige as sidemen gives them a great network of connections to cull from, including folks like NRBQ's Big Al Anderson, Fountains of Wayne's Chris Collingwood, and Jon Pousette-Dart. Their guest-star tradition will also factor into the album they've just begun recording. (Other than the occasional YouTube video or bootleg by fans, the Shinolas have no recorded output.) Their record will feature a mix of originals and covers, vocal tracks and instrumentals.
"Is that a new thing, the Shinolas growing?" I asked Chapdelaine.
"We didn't plan on it growing. I don't think we planned on having as much fun as we do at these gigs. What I didn't anticipate was that people would like this music as much, and that we would sorta get to know all these people. Like, I go to the movies with some of these people now! I hang out with them! And when you get kids and all that, that part of your social life can fall off really fast. [Shinolas gigs are] inexpensive, they can bring their kids if they want, they don't have to bring their kids, they don't have to stay all night, but most people do — it's a flexible thing."
It's almost as though the music is just an excuse to have a good time with other people. "We don't want a record deal. We don't wanna be out on the road. We don't want a bus. We just wanna play music. That model is working pretty well for us so far."