“There is no torch to be passed,” Mihali Savoulidis said. On the eve of Twiddle’s 15-year anniversary, I ask the band’s lead guitarist to reflect on his place in the jam band pantheon. Mihali relaxes into a leather couch in the Old Town Pub’s greenroom in Steamboat Springs, CO. It’s another show in another small town for Mihali as he crisscrosses the country on a tour of intimate solo-acoustic gigs in bars from Albany to Nashville.

Mihali readily admits it was tough being a four-piece band coming out of Vermont. The connections to Phish are all too obvious. Phish formed in Vermont in the early 1980s when guitarist Trey Anastasio met drummer Jon Fishman in a University of Vermont dorm room. Twenty years later and 65 miles south, Mihali met his Twiddle bandmates in the Castleton College dorms. The parallels to iconic jam acts don’t stop there.

Mihali and his fledgling cohort turned to a dictionary when deciding what to call themselves. Twiddle jumped out at them. They wanted a one-word name, something approachable. Twiddle stuck. Mihali liked the word’s synonyms—jiggle, chuckle, jump, squirm, stir. The Grateful Dead found their name the same way — albeit with a bit more DMT. Mihali may not have been aware of the Dead’s naming ritual, but the Phish connection was purposeful. “We were just kids,” Mihali explained. “I wanted to go to Vermont because I love Phish. They’re my favorite band and I wanted to start a band in their vein. And when I got to college, the first thing I did was find Ryan [Dempsey] and we found other players and then Twiddle started.”

Mihali dropped out, started touring, and that was that. He didn’t go to school for school. He went to find a band. Twiddle has toured feverishly ever since. Fifteen years in, the band took their first break this past fall to spend time with family and recharge.

Could Twiddle ascend to the same heights as the Grateful Dead or Phish? Mihali would be honored, but he is blessed to be right where he is.

“The Dead and Phish shared a common, passionate, really passionate fan base that was rabid for the music and that’s incredible,” Mihali said. “And for sure, maybe one fan base sort of migrated to the other, but at the same time, whoever does it next, whoever is going to be doing 60 nights at MSG or playing to 100,000 people, they’re going to be doing their own thing. It’s not going to be Phish’s thing or the Dead’s thing, it’s going to be their thing. And who knows? That’s why it’s all kind of very exciting and up in the air.”

Mihali’s voice is deep, soulful. It invokes the great Southern blues crooners while also lending itself effortlessly to reggae and the Twiddle songbook. Through his voice, Mihali gives his songs passion and meaning often devoid from jam band vocals. As we talk, he apologizes for losing his voice—something about the altitude or the plane to Colorado. “Sorry for my throat,” Mihali tells the crowd. “It’s a little scrumbly.”

Musically, Mihali is a child of the 90s. Bush was his first concert. The H.O.R.D.E tour, alternative rock radio, and classic reggae provided his soundtrack as a kid in suburban New Jersey. His solo act drips with these influences. The Counting Crows’ “Round Here” and Sublime’s “What I got ” are regular staples. For a certain generation, these songs represent Napster downloads, Winamp playlists, and drunken late-night anthems. For Mihali, these are the songs of his youth.

“Honestly, they’re just the songs that are instilled in me,” Mihali said. “So learning them and playing them did not feel like anything, they’re just there, so I don’t have to think about them.”

In Steamboat Springs, Mihali played a searing acoustic medley weaving Bush’s “Glycerine” with Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry”, Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel” and Matisyahu’s “One Day”. On other tours, the same medley has also included Phish’s “Farmhouse”. The medley is sung in the tradition of Bob Marley’s acoustic medley or more likely Bradley Nowell’s early ’90s interpretation. The little scrumble in his voice only gave the medley more life.

No woman no cry
Should have been easier on you
I couldn’t change but I wanted to
No woman no woman cry

Hattie is central to Mihali’s inspiration. A childhood friend who lost his life much too early, Hattie has taken on a mythical role in Mihali’s life and by extension, in the Twiddle ethos. Hattie has crept into Mihali’s songs from the beginning—“Hattibagen McRat”, “Hattie’s Jam”, “When it Rains it Pours”, and a new song on Mihali’s upcoming solo album called “Heart Song” all pay homage. The most endearing tribute? Naming his firstborn daughter Hattie.

Everyone called him Hattie, but his real name was Matt. “I don’t know why,” Mihali said. “I think maybe Matt turned to Hat and then it turned to Hattie or something like that.” The two of them grew up together. While in high school, Hattie saw something in Mihali.

“He was the guy that pushed me the most as a musician and as a person,” Mihali said. “You need to listen to this and play like this and try it and try doing it like that…he was always my biggest critic. But I love that about him.”

After high school, Hattie moved to Boulder, CO and attended the university there. Twiddle was still in its infancy when Mihali first found inspiration in his old friend. Mihali said, “Brother, I’m going to write a song of value. I’m going to create a character that I think you will love and I’m going to make a story that I think you will love, that I think embodies your spirit.” Mihali wrote “Hattibagen McRat” for him.

After hearing his song for the first time, Hattie asked: “What the fuck is Hattibagen McRat?” Mihali and Hattie used to walk their dogs back in Jersey around the South Mountain Reservation. On one of these walks, Mihali had watched The Great Mouse Detective on TV the night before. Mihali started riffing on the film’s crime lord, King Ratigan. A character was born, Hattibagen McRat – a cross of King Ratigan, his buddy Matt, and Matt’s dog.

“And I was calling his dog Marley Martibagen,” Mihali recalled. “It turned to Mattibagen. I was singing that song while we were smoking and chilling in the res, and by the end of that hike it had gone from Mattibagen to Hattibagen because I started singing about him and his dog.”

Although fictional, the song captures Hattie’s vibe—traveling around the country and helping people. Tragically, Hattie passed away at a young age. He was able to hear Twiddle perform the song live. Hattie approved.

Hattie’s impact continues. “He was just my bro,” Mihali said. “He’s my dude. We spent a lot of time together. His father died, my father died when we were younger. I think we had that in common and we kind of bonded over that for sure…He inspired some of my best work, if not all my best stuff.”

While Mihali has no currently scheduled tour dates, he has recently released several singles. The Eric Krasno-produced “Stubborn Smile” features vocalist Mary Corso and drummer Johnny Kimock and follows up a track with Nahko and Trevor Hall titled “Fading State”.

Twiddle returns to the road this month beginning with a three-night run at 10 Mile Music Hall in Frisco, CO on January 17th-19th. From there they will head to Washington, D.C. for a show at the 9:30 Club (1/25) before Gem & Jam Festival in Tucson, AZ (1/31-2/2).

Related: Twiddle Announces Support For 2020 Winter Tour: Scrambled Greg, Andy Frasco, More

Visit Twiddle’s official website for a full list of tour dates and ticket information, and to stay up to date on Mihali’s future solo performances, click here.

Photo: 501 Photography