DeVotchKa and the Colorado Symphony at Red Rocks, with Amanda Palmer, 6/14/13
DeVotchKa's Nick Urata at Red Rocks with the Colorado Symphony. Slide show: DeVotchKa, Amanda Palmer and fans at Red Rocks
Sharing the spotlight with an orchestra of more than fifty members, DeVotchKa ran the risk of getting lost in the shuffle on stage at Red Rocks. Then came the aerialists, who climbed high above the stage via slim stretches of fabric and performed complex, gravity-defying acrobatic routines. Add in the guest appearance by an opera singer, the flashy light show that spanned more than an hour and the majestic scope of the venue itself, and it's easy to see how DeVotchKa's music could be overshadowed, but that didn't happen.
Even with all of the sensory overload on stage, the band's music remained the star of a star-studded showcase. The folksy, worldly sounds of frontman Nick Urata and the rest of the act blended seamlessly with the accompaniment from the Colorado Symphony. Of course, it wasn't the first time that DeVotchKa and the Symphony shared a stage. The two groups are regular collaborators, and their joint appearance at Red Rocks last year resulted in a full-length live album.
Even so, the precision of the pairing felt fresh and innovative during a performance that lasted more than an hour. It seemed as if the size of the orchestra had been pared down a bit for the performance, but there were still more than fifty players complementing the exotic sounds of DeVotchKa. And thanks to the benefit of past collaborations, there was little in the way of excess or waste in the arrangements.
From the first drum lines of "Along the Way" to the opening suite of "Queen of the Surface Streets," "The Common Good" and "Comrade Z," it was clear both groups had worked hard to find the right balance and depth in the orchestration. "Queen" found a complement for its Latin feel in stretches of melodies plucked out on violin strings; Urata's bass-heavy bouzouki playing on "The Common Good" drew a rich accompaniment from the orchestra's lower-register players, and "Comrade Z," with its sinuous stretches straight out of Russian folk music, took on the epic feel of a Tchaikovsky work thanks to the added scope of the orchestra.
That grandiose feel only intensified as the set progressed. After Urata sang the first lines of "Undone," three acrobats dressed in colorful costumes emerged from the side stage and began to climb stretches of crimson fabric that fell from the top of the light rig. They gracefully made their way to a rectangular box set up at the very top of the stage, and offered delicate and impressive physical poetry as the song progressed. By the end of the tune, the aerialists were arranged impossibly mid-air; their routine drew plenty of gasps from the crowd.
That wasn't the only visual complement to the music. Four pieces of fabric were set up behind the orchestra, and a backstage crew shifted and swirled the cloth during certain tunes. A consistently complex and impressive light show also kept up through the entire performance.
But rather than becoming a distraction, all of those elements only served to highlight what was going on musically. An additional horn section appeared to provide the mariachi-inspired lines on "We're Leaving," and the tune "Inseparable" featured a high-register, operatic aria from a guest vocalist, while "How It Ends" married the orchestral percussion of the timpani with Shawn King's straightforward rock lines on a small drum kit.
As the show progressed and the band finished its main set with "All the Sand in All the Sea" and "You Love Me," the time spent honing arrangements and orchestration seemed more and more obvious. It all came to a crescendo during the encore, a stretch of three tunes comprising "The Man from San Sebastian," "Til the End of Time" and "Enemy Guns." The lead melody line in "Enemy Guns," spelled out in a high-pitched whistle from Urata, blended seamlessly with the strings, horns and percussion from the orchestra. It was clear that the dozens and dozens of expert players on the stage had done this before, and the show was all the richer for it.
The Symphony also offered some impressive accompaniment during Amanda Palmer's opening set, a performance that ranged from the heartbreaking to the comedic. Dressed in red breeches, a frilly white shirt and a black coat, Palmer cut a figure from some Vaudeville circus. With her white makeup and painted eyebrows, Palmer started her set with a dose of audience participation. She ventured into the audience for "Missed Me," climbing up to the twelfth or thirteenth row, sampling beer and sitting in a crowd member's lap.
The tone turned more serious on tunes like "Trout Heart Replica" and "The Bed Song," as Palmer spelled out insistent, blocky chords on the piano and the orchestra responded with expansive strings and high violin lines. Between tunes, Palmer credited bassist and Grand Theft Orchestra member Jherek Bischoff with finalizing all of the orchestral arrangements, and the music showed an impressive degree of skill and subtlety. Apart from some stretches where the violins felt a bit too high and cloying, Bischoff did a fine job of matching Palmer's style with the rich textures of the Colorado Symphony.
For Palmer's final song, the plodding Dresden Dolls tune "Coin-Operated Boy," the Symphony's conductor took a turn at comedy. When the song devolved from its circus-like 4/4 beat and structure that would have sounded apt coming from a carnival calliope, Palmer and the conductor switched places. She ran to lead the orchestra for a few seconds on his platform, and he took a turn on her piano. They smiled, exchanged glances and hammed it up for the crowd.
Paper Bird's opening set didn't draw on the expansive sound of the orchestra, but the group still showed off plenty of scope gleaned from more than five years on the scene. The group played selections from their new album, Anything Nameless and Joymaking, as well as songs from Carry On, the ballet they premiered with Ballet Nouveau several years ago. "We've been waiting to play here for seven years," Sarah Anderson declared.
Personal Bias: "Enemy Guns" holds a good deal of nostalgia for me.
Random Detail: A scantily clad female Amanda Palmer fan in the fourteenth row drew plenty of attention. Covered only in tassels and underwear, the woman had scrawled "Photoshop This" on her stomach. Palmer herself made a note of her liberal attire. "You're naked ... Is that legal?" Palmer asked after clambering through the rows.
By The Way: Starting during Palmer's set, a painter worked furiously to complete a canvas set up at the front of the stage. By the end of the DeVotchKa's set, he completed a colorful portrait of a female mariachi dancer in front of an ochre, desert background. I believe the painting was selling for several thousands of dollars.
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