The tone for DeVotchKa's annual Halloween celebration was set as soon as I walked into the Boulder Theater behind a tall man with a tall, faux-bug-light apparatus attached to his head.
The Boulder Theater has a capacity of 850, a far cry from the 9,500 that can fit into Red Rocks, which DeVotchKa sold out in July. Seeing the unique Denver-born gypsy-rock group -- which has been an exceptional international success since scoring the film Little Miss Sunshine in 2006 -- on its home turf in such an intimate venue, on such a festive night, is a treat I'd somehow missed out on since moving to Boulder from San Francisco in 2008.
The early songs were marked by a couple of sound issues and a backdrop of vaguely fitting projections of clouds and outer-space scenes, and a crowd rampant with chatters -- a far cry from the romantically haunting Colorado evening promised by a "mentalist" who introduced the band, calling the sold-out crowd "a room full of people with impeccable taste in music."
DeVotchKa, which got its start as a four-piece "orchestra" at a burlesque house, doesn't particularly excel at carrying across pop songs. For the first few numbers, all that was totally clear above the chatty Boulder crowd was drummer Shawn King's fluid, worldly beats. Eventually, fantastic aerial dancers (known as the Slavic Sisters) and a captivating horn section (led by trumpeter Alice Hansen, my former bandmate in the Afronauts) emerged, along with more audible sounds from frontman Nick Urata's various stringed instruments, as did the dynamism of a Colorado treasure.
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DeVotchKa's most powerful music -- hypnotically cinematic, somewhere between Sketches of Spain and a Tim Burton soundtrack -- effectively tells the same amorous, ghostly story over and over again; by transporting listeners to Romania, Russia, Italy, Spain and the American Southwest, it's a story you don't mind hearing over and over again. Especially on Halloween, or, in this case, the night after Halloween.
"All the Sand in All the Seas," from 2011's100 Lovers
(DeVotchKa's most recent LP) kicked off the supercharged portion of the quartet's performance. The lines "You are leaving here with me," sung over near-electroclash rhythms with a gypsy tinge, were the first words Urata, in black-and-white skeletal makeup, sang that we could make out. But, remarkably, it was the instrumental sections -- tempered with tuba, accordion, violin, various percussion struck by King's drumsticks and even theremin -- of DeVotchKa's set that felt the most narrative.
What's special about DeVotchKa -- the sense that its music is a living soundtrack, embodied by boldly romantic instruments, pulses and expressions and steeped in the traditions of mystical European folk music -- actually delineates itself most effectively when you can't understand a word of what Urata is singing or when he's not singing at all. Not that anything's wrong with his lyrics; it's just that the sense of mystery, especially on Halloween, with ghoulish faces all around, somehow feels more alive, more cinematic, when music is telling the story instead of intelligible words.
When an expert theremin player (even the New Yorker has hailed Urata for that rare talent) is wailing away as mesmerizing aerial dancers manifest and then emerge from what look like fabric cocoons, words just get in the way. Perhaps, as the musically (and otherwise) intoxicated crowd suggested Saturday night, doing much of anything in Boulder on Halloween besides seeing DeVotchKa's annual performance just gets in the way.
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