Full disclosure: Elisha and I love Shahs so much they played our wedding.
Shahs has been a project / band since 2005, and I can't provide you with all the ins and outs that happened other than some awesome, humid, rainy day recordings are out there. The first time I saw Tom Helgerson play was at the ZACC with 10yoGF in 2011 (I think). He was a recent transplant from Minneapolis but had already inserted himself firmly in Missoula's music scene. It was a simple set with only two members at the time (I think maybe Cassandra played along on a couple tunes), but Tom's ability to effortlessly tie the set together piqued my interest. Then and there, I knew that we were lucky to have him. Along with fellow transplant Colin Johnson, Tom quickly added value and variety to our small, transient, and, at times, homeless underground.
I experienced Shahs for the first time without distraction at the Badlander (again, I could be horribly mistaken, but this is the first time it hit hard). For a duo, the level of complexity of the songs is hard to fathom. They were definitely tinny, poppy, and quirky but there is this hard to grasp hypnotic feel brought on by the series of loops, calypso-influence, wide-range of samples, distorted guitar, keyboard, and oddly soft vocals. Everything is so layered that it's hard to single out the individual instruments until you're fully under its spell. Once there, and I don't know why, there's the strange feeling of isolation that runs counter to almost everything the music accomplishes.
The newest incarnation features Tom, Nick Ryan, Lukas Phelan, Javier Ryan, John Sporman, and Jenny Fawcett. It's criminal for so much talent to play together. The music is even more complex as they navigate through the delicate waters of creative freedom and orchestration. It's pop noise, or self-proclaimed tropical psychedelic, or corroded ambiance, or visceral weirdo stuff, or synchronized cacophony, or ... Whatever it is, it's some of the most fun, engaging, challenging trips that music can take you on. There's a dreamy party vibe cutting through each song that reflects both Tom's personality and influences as well as each member who, to my perception, has slotted in perfectly.
Tom is one of the most sincere, fun, reflective, kind, talented, intelligent, and warm people whom I have the privilege of knowing. Watching Shahs develop and continually import amazing talent into its roster is impressive in itself. The immeasurable and intangible effects Tom has had on Missoula is even more impressive. As musicians, their shows and recordings feel like a book that you routinely return to and discover connections and allusions that you missed the prior reads. Shahs sets a bar against which I'm not sure it's fair to compare other bands. As people, Shahs are unnecessarily humble. As for that creative crooner Tom, I can listen to him laugh until the oceans dry up. He's that good.