Originally published in Third Coast Review.
Instruments speak for themselves. That’s in a performance by DeVotchKa, featuring a revolving door of voices at Vic Theatre Thursday in Chicago. Devotchka is renowned for its multitude of sounds and cultural influences, most often displayed by a prominent accordion, a syncopated drum kit and a smooth bass line.
DeVotchKa is Vocalist Nick Urata, Tom Hagerman, Jeanie Shroder and Shawn King. Each band member plays at least two instruments switching off throughout their set. Those played by Urata include a guitar, a theremin and more. The latter is not a voice I was familiar with until I noticed the hovering of Urata’s hand over the machine, simultaneous with the movement of sound in one of the band’s later songs.
Shroder transitioned from a sousaphone, whose brightly lit bell surprised the audience, to the bass, which helped drive songs with its gentle thump.
Hagerman plays the accordion, viola and violin, which all round out the DeVotchKa sound in its gypsy street busking glory, and King diversifies the tempo of each song, manipulating the movement of the crowd’s necks and feet.
DeVotchKa approached a dark stage to open its set with “The Alley.” Imagery plays a huge role in the This Night Falls Forever tour, with projections of horses galloping, fields of yellow flowers, and scenes of thick, rising smoke.
Aerial dancers joined the set when DeVotchKa performed “Break Up Song,” an ode to doing just that – breaking up, moving on with life to unseen territory. This song yearns for experience and adventure with lyrics like, “Exchange all the barren lands for a little greenery/Wide open skies as far as the eye can see.”
That’s all while a beautiful woman spins and somersaults in ribbons draping from the ceiling. Paradoxical is the prevalence of this girlfriend of whom Urata sings soulfully, almost distraught. She’s ever-present on his mind, massaging his actions with her aerial gymnastics.
“Devochka” means “girl” in Russian.
Much of the DeVotchKa sound lives in the darkest progressions of the minor scale, and vocals aren’t the only instrumentation to fill the room evenly at the Vic. Hagerman’s piano chords burn bright through the entire hall as he performs in “My Little Despot” off the band’s 2018 album. The pressure of his fingers on the keys create a sound that climb up past the balcony, bending the boundaries of space.
Urata told NoiseTrade that his band’s decision to perform in intimate venues like the Vic relies on this: “The audience have to endure less-than-ideal conditions, and you’re right there with them…I wanted to keep that connection going and make sure these songs were worthy of it.”
The four-piece has created a rare occasion in which mega fans are neither obligated to pay insane arena ticket prices, nor are they forced into a cold separation from an artist to whose music they feel closest. DeVotchKa has experimented with arenas and small venues.
The Vic was the right decision.
Imagery was so ubiquitous that it felt at times like the band had written songs about each and every person listening. Of course, that’s not a foreign theme to DeVotchKa who has written the scores for several movies, including “Little Miss Sunshine,” whose soundtrack won the band the corresponding 2006 Grammy. What’s important about this element is that no matter how isolated each group of people is from one another on the floor of the Vic, the energy exchanged results in the feeling that only one movie is written for every walk of life there.
The soundtrack of “Little Miss Sunshine” evidently came right around the time of the band’s breakout in 2006. But the band’s critically acclaimed “How It Ends” was the result of simple tinkering around one night while alone.
“I randomly decided to plug my Casio into a few weird effects pedals I had lying around. That exact recording opens the film, ‘Little Miss Sunshine,’” Urata told NoiseTrade.
DeVotchKa exited the stage and the audience clapped still standing in the dark, eagerly watching ahead for the band to come back and perform just one or two more songs. Behind me, I heard someone who must know-it-all telling his friend, “’How It Ends’ is their big hit, so,’” and my 13-year-old heart became aflutter, awaiting those raw first measures.
In fact, that’s the exact sound the band closed its official set with Thursday night.
Post encore, DeVotchKa concluded its performance with about a 20-minute-long jam session, during which members of the night’s opener, Orkesta Mendoza, were featured, playing tambourine and more. And the women who performed those aerial dances danced tirelessly in front of the band for the entire duration of the jam session.
DeVotchKa caused its actors, its audience, to forget it was a week night, just like innately talented street accordionists in Turkey, Russia, Italy.