why so Eastern European? part one

DeVotchKa, Gogol Bordello, Balkan Beat Box, Little Cow and even a quirky coffeeshop–they’re all enticing me into some melancholy funky string-laden mystical-goofy trance.  But you know: this is the United States, this is Denver, Colorado, what’s the deal? Oh, I’d like to say it’s some genetic homesickness, but I’m afraid that would have to be handed to the Celts.  The only friend I’ve ever had with a hint of Eastern European-ness disavowed any link and listened to Brian Eno.  This need for the roots connection, the folkiness of diverse instrumentation nearly lost, has nothing to do with some blood link.  For  about simple boredom.When every commercial song, even the indie stuff, starts sounding the same, the sudden appearance of a sousaphone or theremin, or even a singer who is willing to look like an insane half naked goofball while backed by accordion players–well, that is refreshing.images-12.jpegimages-112.jpeg–Anyway, I like the accordion. These bands throw it all into the stew, cook it up, toss it out there less to be consumed as to create a pop art splatter.  How multidimensional, how spicy, even chunky–okay, it’s to be seen and experienced, creating (for a change) a “wow” response, even a respectful “they can actually play their instruments!”   The most popular of these bands aren’t really Eastern European, by the way–they are the children of immigrants, or came to the States as young children, perhaps with a few “authentic” side players.  They’re popular because, yes, they know the folk tradition, but they also mix it up with the music of the American neighborhood.To explain, let me delve briefly into the music of DeVotchKa, a mighty four-piece band that between them plays twenty instruments, and does it well. (These include not only the usual guitar, but an upright bass, a theremin, a sousaphone, the trumpet, the sax, something called a bouzouki, the piano, and, of course, the accordion.)    images-13.jpegAfter providing accompaniment to Denver burlesque shows and playing the clubs and promoting themselves on the road (sans contract), they got heard on some NPR show and were picked up to provide the soundtrack for the movie Little Miss Sunshine.  At the time, that was just a little indie movie, remember?–and this unknown banddevotchka_12_30_0603.jpg gets heard by all the kids who are obsessed with that film (you know who you are).  Moody (but not pretentious), lonely, rhythmic, pict0210-small-1preview.jpgevocative, ever so slightly spooky and ghetto-ish (there are reasons that people fled Russia to America)–this was not the usual teen cute crap that usually serves as the film backdrop.  What makes DeVotchKa particularly weird, though, is the way they throw in the Mexican mariachi, that rockin’-style mariachi, and then you throw in that freaky sousaphone (played by a woman, thank you) and the theramin and it works….It isn’t a hodgepodge, it’s more of a instinctive realization that these cultures are connected.  (And when you listen to all of this “world music” enough, you begin to recognize the crosscultural sounds, even when the language and instruments are different).  Something almost sad is created here, in DeVotchKa’s tone.    DeVotchKa: “I Cried Like a Silly Boy” “This Place is Haunted”  DeVotchKa’s name does a pretty clever double-meaning thing, coming out of both A Clockwork Orange (punk!), which came from the Russian word meaning “young girl” (folk!).  While no one in the band is directly from Eastern Europe, songwriter Nick Urata’s parents have their gypsy roots.  (Urata grew up in Chicago, on Cicero, in an Eastern European and Hispanic neighborhood, and moved to Denver later to meet up with his bandmates and their own Hispanic musical influences.)  While the band clearly emphasizes the Russian folk sound, it’s really more accurately an American immigrant music, a jumble of street inflections, media influences, and spices. Right before New Year’s, my daughter Paige, stepson Andrew and I saw DeVotchKa perform at a small club/restaurant, The Mercury Cafe, in downtown Denver.   For a change, I wasn’t the only old-ish (over 35-aged) person in the room–I was, in fact, outflanked by an array of who I suspect were relatives, friends, and teachers of the band members.  It was an intimate hometown scene, a kind of band-goes-on-world-tour-then-comes-back-for-a-special-visit affair, and so created an odd blend of the usual pain in the ass drunken people who talk throughout the concert, and the kids hugging the stage edges, and people trying to sit seriously in the  back and listen.  We were in this latter group, except we were standing, craning, and occasionally catching a glimpse of the Christmas-lighted sousaphone and the elegant bow arm of the violinist.  The music was immersive, impressive, and peculiarly more suitable for a quiet space.  Even my stepson the cello performance major looked faintly stunned at the ability of the band members to play multiple instruments (and not necessarily complementary ones: the string players could  haul out horns and vice versa).  My daughter, a far more serious DeVotchKa fan than I, was not in the least surprised.   (Here are a few clips from performances they’ve done elsewhere:) The show was consistently striking, although not exactly filled with the kind of frivolous and loud “fun” that usually comes with the rock concerts I’ve seen  in Denver.  (I’m not talking about the somber shows at the folk clubs–that’s another matter entirely.)  It’s a complement to the band to say I wanted to truly listen without a drunken and large jackass swerving  and bobbing in my way.But that’s all right.  It was all good natured and the band was clearly happy to be playing there.  The t-shirt table did quick business (“Hey, man, I saw ’em back when Nick was in the other band–they crashed on my couch, man–I’ll take that one”) and the women at the bar let me loiter up there on the risers where the view was clear–downstairs at the cafe, they served up coffee and pie and beer, and it was all as if DeVotchKa never made a soundtrack at all.The band’s still trying to get on a major label, by the way.  They’re signed with an indy label (Ace Records) and getting by doing performances, like so many bands do.  They’re probably too weird, a little too melancholy and not in a teenaged kind of way, to ever make it really big.  But they can get by in part by sailing in on the Eastern European/not wave.  And more about that in the next post. 

One response to “why so Eastern European? part one

  1. Pingback: Media Districts Entertainment Blog » why so Eastern European? part one

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