The Northwoods excel with local pop-folk

Lynyrd Skynyrd was named after an unpopular gym teacher. REO Speedwagon came from the moniker of an old fire engine. The appellation Bad English was made famous due to a missed pool shot. If local band The Northwoods ever makes it as big as those groups, it will again show music’s awesome power to immortalize mundane terms into household words.

“Nothing but trees,” remembered Jeremy Shanas of the location of the remote Wisconsin summer camp, which led to the group’s name. “We were definitely in the middle of nowhere.”

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Now the duo is hoping it’s in the middle of a hot streak. Selected as this year’s Best New Band by Riverfront Times readers, the group is starting to garner a lot of attention at venues from Cicero’s to Blueberry Hill to the Pageant.

“We do this full-time and put a lot of work into it,” said Shanas’s band mate Elijah Palnik. “It feels good to have that work recognized. I think both of us are really excited about what’s been going on but at the same time we’re always working hard to keep everything moving and the momentum going.”

The momentum began for the pair when they met at Camp Ramah, a 150-acre Conservative Jewish summer camp just miles from the border with Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, located in the continent’s heavily forested North Woods region. The two spent several summers there and discovered that they both shared an interest in music. Shanas, a native St. Louisan, said that for him music came naturally. By age 13, he had his own drum set and a couple of years later had moved onto the guitar.

“Both of my parents were musicians so I grew up around music all the time,” said Shanas, now 24. “Their big vocal group would meet every Sunday and I would kind of sit around and listen so I really learned how to hear harmonies.”

Palnik, originally from Columbus, Ohio, also felt the pull of music and like his friend learned the guitar.

“We always had an interest in music but we never really started playing until our last summer there oddly enough,” he said. “We were just messing around and we’d sing a song and then one of us would harmonize and it was like whoa…It just came out. It was awesome and just clicked.”

While Shanas studied in Israel after high school, Palnik went on to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. When Shanas moved back to the U.S., he relocated to Boston and by 2007, the pair had formed The Northwoods. The name was one on a long list they considered which mostly referred to various parts of the camp.

After a brief stay on the East Coast, Shanas and Palnik moved to St. Louis. Gigs didn’t pay all the bills at first and the duo, who were now rooming together, also had to get part-time jobs. Sure enough they ended up at the same coffee shop working as baristas. Not that it wasn’t a career-enhancing experience.

“It was pretty hilarious,” recalled Palnik, 23. “We’d get to talking to people and one of us would mention we play in a band and the other one would hand them a card.”

That conversational nature is evident on-stage as well. The pair’s shows feature a lot of interaction with both the audience and each other. Palnik said it’s not uncommon for listeners to ask how long he and Shanas have known one another.

“A lot of people remember our show because we’re just very talkative,” Palnik said. “That’s what they leave with. They always respond to what we’ve recorded and they like our CDs but I think that when they see us live, everyone says the same thing, that you can sense the friendship there.”

The release of their 2009 album Morning, Noon & Night, has spotlighted their uniquely mellow style and invited comparisons to such acts as Simon & Garfunkel. At the same time, the soft texture to their work is often infused with beatboxing and other evidence that shows they are no stranger to a drum set.

“Our sound is folk pop,” Shanas said. “That’s the best way to describe it. It’s acoustic, so it’s a little more gentle. At the same time we’re both percussionists so we do a lot of mouth percussion.”

But Palnik said he thinks it’s the content, not just the melody that draws in the audience. Their songs often focus on upbeat themes of love and friendship.

“Sometimes they may not even catch it in the beginning,” he said. “They might be listening to the harmony but with that there is a very powerful message. There are so many bands that are so loud. We bring a message and we do it through soft music which I don’t think has yet found its place in music today.”

Some of the group’s clients are Judaic. They said that recent gigs include the United Synagogue Youth convention in Kansas City, the Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel Hanukkah party and Solomon Schechter Day School, of which Shanas, who attends Shaare Zedek Synagogue, is a graduate. On Jan. 9, The Northwoods will perform a concert at Traditional Congregation.

Still, The Northwoods isn’t an explicitly Jewish band in terms of its music.

“It’s part of who we are,” Shanas said. “We were raised in Conservative Jewish communities in different cities. That made us who we are and that influences what we write about so it all ties together.”

Both musicians say that they are hoping for the band to evolve to the next level. That means doing more regional gigs like the Kansas City event or a recent one in Chicago.

“It’s nice to interact with all those people,” Palnik said. “They’re having a good time and we’re having the best time, too, so it’s quite an experience.”

For more information on the band visit

The Northwoods at Traditional Congregation

WHAT: Traditional Congregation is offering an evening of fine kosher dining and entertainment featuring The Northwoods

WHEN: Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 9

WHERE: Traditional Congregation, 12437 Ladue Road in Creve Coeur.

How much: Tickets are $36 per person and includes dinner and entertainment. Attendees may bring their own kosher alcoholic beverages. Set-ups will be provided.

MORE INFO: Paid reservations required by Jan. 4. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to the Jewish Day Schools in our community. For reservations and info, call 314-576-5230.