Mike Shade has been around the music biz for more than two decades, most notably as lead guitarist of D.C.’ Magnolia Blue, a New-Orleans-style funk group, but also part of bands playing swing, jazz, blues, funk, and rock.
“I’ve been playing since I was really young, and my main focus was in jazz,” Shade said. “I toured with a band called the Capital Focus Jazz Band, which is a youth organization put on by the Potomac River Jazz Club.”
It was about three years ago when Shade first started playing bluegrass and quickly became a huge fan of the genre.
In 2017, he joined up with mandolin player Josh Ungar, banjo player Evan Sands and fiddler Dan Henderson and played together as a group at the DelFest Academy.
“This is a yearly festival that has been going on for around 15 years run by the Del McCoury Band in Maryland, which happens around Memorial Day every year, and brings about 30,000 bluegrass fans to the area,” Shade said. “A few days before each festival, they will take students that sign up and musicians playing will offer master classes.”
After the foursome played together, Ungar knew they had something special and talked the others into trying to make something out of it. The foursome soon added D.C.-based Taylor Gerber on bass, and the bluegrass band Pictrola was born.
“We all lived within close proximity and made something work,” Shade said. “I was bitten by the bluegrass bug at DelFest and started crossing some of my swing and jazz influences with the things we were doing in bluegrass.”
The band strives to incorporate modern themes into traditional bluegrass, bringing elements from blues, swing, jazz, and rock into unique covers and originals.
“The interesting thing about bluegrass and jazz is they share a similarity in that there are a group of standard songs that almost everybody knows,” Shade said. “In jazz, you’ll call a song and you’ll trade solos back and forth, and bluegrass is very similar. There’s a lot of improvisation and a common group of songs so bluegrass musicians can play together.”
In March, the band took a trip together to Nepal.
“It was an interesting trip and focused around the similarities of music from mountain people both here and the Himalayas, so it was an interesting folk music themed trip,” Shade said.
However, once they returned, they had to go straight into lockdown and weren’t able to meet much over the last six months to play because they have close family members in high-risk groups.
“We played a show in February just before the pandemic hit, and then we’ve pretty much been on the sidelines, Shade said. “We started recording an album at the end of 2019, but that has stalled because we haven’t been able to get together to finish it up. We have a handful of tracks ready to complete, but it’s in flux for now.”
On Nov. 21, Pictrola will be playing a free outdoor show at the State Theatre beginning at 4 p.m., the band’s second time performing at the Falls Church venue since September.
“We’re so happy that the State Theatre is able to do this safely, outdoors,” Shade said. “We haven’t been able to get together all that often for our normal rehearsals and we are all excited to be out there together.”
The show will include the fun bluegrass sounds that Pictrola fans have come to expect.
“We try to take originals that we write in the style of bluegrass and put our own twist on it,” Shade said. “For example, we might take a Django Reinhardt song and do it with more bluegrass instrumentation. We take popular ’80s tunes and we might refashion them into something that’s interesting.”
He noted the band likes to hint at the song at the beginning and once the hook comes along, the crowd recognizes it and smiles appear.
“We try not to be your normal bluegrass band, we do have our own niche,” Shade said. “We try to make a fun listening experience with some things people recognize and some things that are new.”