Too many indie rockers seem out of place on an elegant, well-lit stage. Studio brilliance hardly predicts in-the-flesh luminosity: often I watch some pale-faced nerds tremble onto the stage with their instruments at the start of a show, and I immediately wish we were back in their parents’ basement or the dingy dive where they got their start. DeVotchka arouses no such feelings; this is a group tailor-made for the 930 Club’s 1,200-person, intimate-yet-grand venue. The stage is aglow with red lighting, and DeVotchka’s four-member core, dressed as if for the funeral of a 19th-century vaudevillian, enters accompanied by loudspeakers playing a classical waltz and a scantily clad circus-type dancer who tosses rose petals into the crowd.
Pronounced showmanship is a breath of fresh air in this authenticity-obsessed era, and DeVotchka’s burlesque history (they used to tour with fetish model Dita von Teese) in addition to their gypsy-folk-meets-punk-rock tunes have created a burgeoning reputation, to say nothing of the band’s quirky biographies: leader Nick Urata is of Gypsy ancestry, drummer/trumpeter Shawn King is the son of Polka musicians, tuba-player/bassist Jeanie Schroder has a background playing Civil War reenactments, and Tom Hagerman, the normal one, is a classically trained violinist who also plays accordion and piano. Although DeVotchka had released four albums by the time the band was pegged to score 2006’s surprise blockbuster Little Miss Sunshine, that film’s success brought a whole new audience. This year’s fantastic A Mad & Faithful Telling has been received with the gushing excitement usually reserved for a stellar debut.
16 May 2008: 930 Club Washington, DC
A packed house of district citizens in addition to NPR producers (the entire show can be streamed here) were on hand to witness the scene. Opener “Head Honcho”, led by Urata’s staccato acoustic strumming and Hagerman’s silky accordion runs, featured a concert-appropriate first line: “We’re going to hit ’em, hit ’em where it hurts.” Urata’s vocal work, which always seemed to me to evoke a lovechild between Jeff Buckley and a Carpathian peasant, was eerily stirring in its hoarse edges and bilingual rhapsody. DeVotchka began the show as a quartet, and the reduced arrangements highlighted the band’s punkish, jagged side; Hagerman’s solo violin seared and tremoloed with the testimony of someone who’s thrown his academic training out the window and into the raging streets of rock and roll. On a rollicking digression from “Basso Profundo”, Urata and Schroder enacted a theremin-tuba duel that sounded like a mouse chasing an elephant. A string trio—two additional violinists and a cellist—occasionally augmented DeVotchka’s core of multi-instrumentalists, and a guest trumpeter also dropped by for a few songs. The “DeVotchka strings,” as Urata referred to the players, were a welcome addition. Bringing out the lusher orchestration upped the band’s melodramatic tendencies, and that was certainly appreciated on wondrous ballads like “The Clockwork Witness” and “Transliterator”.
With a bevy of instrumental intricacies and well-hewed, tradition-twisting song structures, Urata and company proved to be masterful sustainers of audience attention, but the lock-tight orchestration of the thing almost had the dimensionality of celluloid. It is hardly surprising that DeVotchka grew famous by backing up a leathery strip show and scoring Abigail Breslin’s big-eyed cuteness, considering that the most memorable moment of the night came when the band ceded the spotlight to an aerial-curtain contortionist. At the start of “C’Esta Cela” from Una Volta, a long silky curtain dropped from the topmost batten to the floor in front of the stage, and, led by an agent unable to be seen from the back of the room, began to dance to the song’s twittering, accordion- and theremin-fed psycho-polka. Here I migrated to the 930’s balcony to get a better look at what was shaking the curtain, and by the time I regained my view, the same petal-tosser from the start of the show was ascending the curtain to the crowd’s rapturous applause. For the rest of “C’est Ce La” and the instrumental jam that followed, the aloft acrobat flipped and turned in sync to the music in a performance that, if not death-defying, at least risked a few broken limbs—not something you see every day.
By ripping a page from Cirque du Soleil’s playbook and constantly varying their instrumentation, DeVotchka demonstrated that they are more than the sum of their disparate influences. Current rock could definitely benefit from a revival of the kind of theatricality introduced by Alice Cooper and Meat Loaf. DeVotchka’s frame of reference may be more Eastern European vagabondage than West-Coast shock-rock, and while the group only offered a glimpse of their festive tastes here, a broader embrace of theater—as in, say, incorporating a fuller smorgasbord of weirdness in more circus acts, the return of Dita von Teese, maybe even dramatic interludes and film clips—could elevate their musical appearances from fascinating sideshows to must-see spectacles.