February 16, 2009 | 8:43am
Photo: Gary Isaacs
DeVotchKa, Quixotic Friday, Feb. 13
Better than: Seeing one of Denver's most effusive and entrancing local acts in a stripped-down, sullen setting.
Atmosphere can make a big difference.
I've seen members of DeVotchKa play in various incarnations and in a wide variety of venues during the past ten years. As a teenager, I took them in as a full quartet at the Mercury Café; I saw frontman Nick Urata and violinist/accordionist Tom Hagerman open for Iron and Wine in 2007; and Urata alone warmed the small, cramped stage at the Lion's Lair for Andrew Bird four years ago.
But for all my former live run-ins with the band, I felt as if I were seeing them for the very first time Friday night.
Perhaps it was the grandiose, Victorian feel of the Paramount, an epic atmosphere that seemed perfectly suited to the band's sinuous violin lines and Eastern European musical echoes. Maybe it was the evening's ramped up stagecraft, which included the smoke machines and live camera feeds one would expect at any decent arena show. An expanded string section could also have been the determining factor in the band's newfound live appeal.
Whatever the specific reason, Friday's show put the band in a new light. While the performance suffered from some minor sound issues, the band's unbridled energy and varied set list made for a compelling, dynamic show.
The performance art group Quixotic opened Friday's show, dubbed "Lupercalia," and the troupe's size and scope aligned ideally with the show's headliners. The group from Kansas City, Missouri, set a perfect tone for the night, with a stage presence that would have been apt at a carnival or a burlesque show.
Though the group comprised seven musicians, the stage hosted a much larger crowd during Quixotic's set. Groups of four or five dancing girls twirled and leapt as the band played driving, percussive rhythms and jaunty melodies that jumped between Eastern European Klezmer music and Middle Indian meditation music.
For all the drive of the band's violinist, its baritone saxophone player and its keyboard player, the real thrust and push of the music seemed to rest in its lush percussion and dense drum lines. Indeed, Quixotic's dreamy melodies found an anchor in the frenzied rhythms and clattering tones of the percussion set. What's more, aerialists on raised hoops, belly dancers who danced among the musicians and acrobats who made impossible leaps to the music set a clear mood for the main act.
When DeVotchKa did take the stage for its two-hour-plus set, it seemed that an ethereal and otherworldly mood had already been cast. As the high tones of Urata's whistles floated above Hagerman's plaintive violin, Jeanie Schroder's double bass and Shawn King's drum lines, the near capacity crowd seemed to need no warming up. And while the mixing made Urata's voice and Hagerman's violin difficult to distinguish at times, they managed to make their presence known through sheer energy.
The band quickly delivered energetic takes on tunes like "The Enemy Gun," "Transliterator" and "Along the Way," and the players immediately showed off their trademark skill for incorporating nontraditional instruments into their live performances. Schroder swapped the double bass for a sousaphone by the second song, Urata took a theramin solo early on and King exhibited his skill as a multi-instrumentalist for "Way."
By the fourth song, Hagerman's violin found a supplement in an expanded string section, which included the Flobots' MacKenzie Roberts on viola. The added textures lent a stirring, lilting quality to songs like "We're Leaving" and "How It Ends." Even a cover of C. Carson Parks' found a novel sound under the expanded ensemble's direction. As Urata, King, Hagerman and Schroder switched up instruments for what seemed like every song, and as the guest string section lent the tunes a carefully orchestrated, symphony caliber sound, the real range of the band's skill was almost palpable.
The guest string players departed for a stretch, and DeVotchKa reverted back to its core members for "The Oblivion" and "Ocean of Lust." But the change didn't diminish the band's flair for theatricality. Urata took turns on the theramin, the bouzouki and the guitar, while King took added stints on the trumpet and the accordion.
For the first of two encore songs, two female aerialists ascended black and red sheets to impressive heights. As DeVotchKa unleashed a speedy, uptempo instrumental that featured theramin solos and waltz tempos, they'd fall precariously, only to halt their descents with acrobatic acumen. For the final tune, a grandiose take on "You Love Me," the enlarged string section returned and two trumpets provided added melody lines.
It was a fitting finale for an epic show. As the members of DeVotchKa took their final bows among the string players, added trumpeters and a pair of aerialists, I gained newfound respect for the scope of their efforts.
Personal bias: As an enthusiast of Eastern European gypsy tunes from the early twentieth century, I responded particularly to the songs that boasted waltz time signatures and heavy violin melodies from both the Quixotic and DeVotchKa sets.
Random detail: The audience was one of the most diverse I've seen in a long time. Teenagers cheered side-by-side with thirty-somethings, forty-somethings and fifty-somethings, all clad in DeVotchKa T-shirts.
By the way: Bouzoukis and theramins can coexist on the same stage.