DeVotchKa Goes Symphonic at the Synagogue

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A DeVotchKa performance can take on many different forms. There’s the fully electrified band version, complete with women acrobatically shimmying up and down and about flowing garnet curtains suspended from the ceiling. There’s the acoustic, stripped down version where the quartet may or may not be performing as a trio. And, now, there’s the fully fleshed out hybrid vision of the two, which appears to be the current and immediate future iteration of the group.

The Denver-based ensemble visited the 6th & I Synagogue in Washington, D.C. last week, a perhaps fitting location for this edition of their buoyant kleczmer meets orchestral punk. It was also a strange scene, with Echo & the Bunnymen on the P.A. beforehand as an anticipatory audience sipped beer in logo-ed adult-versions of sippy cups. But, perhaps no stranger a scene than bingo at the local Catholic parish, if bingo was delayed to accommodate lengthy beer lines.

On this night, DeVotchKa took the stage as a ten-person ensemble. They arrived armed with a plethora of instruments:  An oboe…a clarinet…a trumpet…another trumpet…keyboards. Accordion. Three violins. Viola. Standing bass. Tuba. A drum kit. Greek mandolin. Electric guitar. Assorted other instruments. Doing simple math, it’s clear that not all were utilized song-by-song, but a few of the uniquely talented musicians played multiple instruments within songs. And speaking of unique talent, let’s not forget Nick Urata’s evocative vocals.

Like most visits to the symphony, there was a lot of black on stage. Strikingly, though, that wonderfully orchestral treatment was presented with hip twists. A Castro hat here. A red shirt there. Some wild leggings for good measure. Black…yes. Bland…no.

It was a tight fit on stage, and one had to wonder about the difficulties presented to a violinist playing her parts while a trumpet blared in her left ear, as well as the challenges presented to liberal movement of her bow by the viola player stationed immediately to her left.  It’s a venue that presents both idiosyncratic challenges and virtues. Occasionally the drumming – particularly the snare – overwhelmed the orchestral nuance. That’s just a problem in this room from time to time, and not an easy one to handle for a one-off show. But, they adjusted ably, showing off a top-end musicianship often missing these days. And when a band finds that proper balance, few venues are quite as rewarding.

Even though the majority of these songs have been performed countless times before, they took on new life with complex and beautiful arrangements that opened up a much richer existence.  For many, the new arrangements seem to represent their complete realization. The string parts in particular added noticeable complexity, and the high end chirping of the clarinet brought a punctuation to particularly important beats that might otherwise have been shrouded.

Towards the end of the set, Urata’s electric guitar blew out inopportunely. Again, ten acted as one, showing their virtuosity and adapting on the fly, repetitively holding the phrase until he made the relatively seamless shift to an acoustic, which, ultimately may have worked better within the newly orchestral arrangement of the composition.

All together, it was a surprisingly raucous affair given the veneer of class that an oboe, strings and a house of worship provide. A raucous affair that reached a full-throated boil with the spaghetti western whistle that accompanies “The Enemy Guns.” They threw down aggressively with a wildly entertaining version of the song, and between the epic sound and the Synagogue setting one would be excused for half-expecting Charlton Heston to deliver the Ten Commandments from up on high at its cathartic conclusion (which also marked the end of their hour long set).

A brief interlude was filled with a lustful audience appeal for more, and DeVotchKa’s four primary members emerged to sate the gathered masses. They’re a tight unit, and perhaps a slightly increased comfort level is to be expected due to their long-standing familiarity. The boisterous crowd was appreciative, and while a fraction of the size was both louder (and more liquored-up) than attendees at the RNC. All in all, it was quite a memorable performance. And if you’re familiar with the band, you know that…this…is “Where it Ends.”


(DeVotchKa takes to the stage at Red Rocks with The Airborne Toxic Event and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra on September 20th, 2012. Tickets are available here).

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Behrnsie has a love for music that dare not speak its name. He attends many shows and can often be found counting out the beats for no discernible reason. He played alto saxophone in his middle school jazz band, where he was best known for infuriating his instructor when it was revealed that he played everything by ear, and could not in fact read music. He takes great pride that this is the same talent/affliction that got Tori Amos kicked out of the Peabody Academy. He does not live in his parents’ basement….except during the holidays.