Thursday, March 24, 2011

Devotchka at the Highline Ballroom

There's something about a handsome man, stroking the empty air tenderly, with his eyes closed, with a romantic yet mournful look on his face. He is not a blind man trying to feel his way around. He is not lost in the dark looking to find the light switch- nor is he a crazy person aimlessly wandering the streets of New York City. No, the night I witnessed a handsome man lovingly caressing the air- with his brows furrowed deeply, his lids shut tight while he pursed his lips... was last night at the Highline Ballroom. The man in question was Nick Urata and he was playing the theremin. THE THEREMIN. That's one of the many little eccentric details about Devotchka that I happen to adore. You just don't get enough music incorporating instruments that don't require you to touch them! Another element of eccentricity in all its off beat appeal is the sexy as hell SOUSAPHONE player Jeanie who's always donning a beautiful dress and killer vampy high heels. Not to mention the extra oddball dimension to that is the percussion prop table full of the expected instruments... but also steel bowls, and pots and pans.

OK, so, Devotchka is more than just eccentric in the details. They are the embodiment of eccentricity. In fact, Devotchka's eclectic mix of noise makers on stage make the other components of the band, the violin, the upright bass, the accordion, trumpet, piano, and flute appear average and standard fare. This is exactly why I love Devotchka. Besides the items with which they perform upon, the energy, spirit, and attitude of their songs are always an intriguing melodrama that I gladly watch play out minute by minute. Whether it was a love ballad, a war cry, a whimper of lovelorn defeat, or a wordless melody of joy I found myself enthralled and dancing along at every musical mood swing.

Despite some issues with the sound system the show was one of the best I've seen this year. The crowd was tame, but it made for plenty of dancing room for me and my cohort. Even as I am writing this, I am shaking my head and humming the songs though it's been hours upon hours since the music stopped. The set list was everything I could've hoped for and more. It was a healthy mix of their entire catalog and included some choice tracks off of their newest album, "100 Lovers". (Side note: I find the new album very crisp with a slight modern-sounding edge to it I hadn't detected in their previous work before.) The few tracks that they'd chosen to perform that night harmonized beautifully with their more classic hits.

The show itself was certainly more stripped down than the previous shows I've seen from Devotchka, but I felt it was a pleasant change of pace. It allowed me to focus more on their musical prowess and not be distracted superfluous flash. That is not to say that there wasn't SOME flash. There were some key moments during the set, where the sudden appearance of scantily clad silhouettes began a sultry dance to entice us- not to mention the dames in their britches spinning large white umbrellas. Though these little ladies were very welcome, for me, Devotchka's musical talent was the real show stopper. I've never seen such a wide variety of instruments switched on and off between songs in my life. Jeanie went from sousaphone, to upright bass, and to flute with merely a subtle bat of the lashes to indicate a shift. I watched in utter captivation as the drummer Shawn wailed away on his trumpet from behind the drum set- while still maintaining a beat! Not to mention the musical shapeshifting of Tom who went from piano to accordion to violin so quickly I never even saw the switch occur!

Nick's voice alone is an instrument that has so much depth and emotional range that the need for added instrumentation should be unnecessary but NO, the man switched guitars so many times it seemed as if he suffered from a severe case of musical A.D.D. then, to top it all off, with a simple swivel to his left, Nick would let his guitar fall to his hips- he'd raise his arms in position and wail away at the theremin. It was nothing but excitingly frantic musical mayhem on that stage, and I couldn't help but dance the night away.

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