Boulder Theater, 11/1/2014
by Adam Perry for Westword
Walking into the Boulder Theater on Saturday night wearing a Goorin Bros. flatcap and a hoodie, I had the feeling my date (also casually dressed) and I would be hopelessly out of place at Devotchka’s sold-out annual Halloween celebration. However, there seemed to be as many concertgoers wearing costumes (mostly Day of the Dead style) as not, which was a welcome realization after initially standing behind a tall man with a tall faux-bug-light apparatus attached to his head.
The Boulder Theater, which opened in 1906, has a capacity of 850, a far cry from the 9,500 that can fit into Red Rocks, which Devotchka sold out in July. Seeing the unique Denver-born gypsy-rock group – which has been an exceptional international success since scoring the film Little Miss Sunshine in 2006 – on its home turf in such an intimate venue, on such a festive night, is a treat I’d somehow missed out on since moving to Boulder from San Francisco in 2008.
With iffy sound and a backdrop of vaguely fitting projections of clouds and outer-space scenes, and a crowd rampant with chatters, the first few songs of Devotchka’s set belied my expectations of a romantically haunting Colorado evening amid what a “mentalist” who preceded Devotchka called “a room full of people with impeccable taste in music.”
Devotchka, which got its start as a four-piece “orchestra” at a burlesque house, doesn’t particularly excel at carrying across pop songs, especially as the sound at a somewhat tricky venue gets dialed in. For the first few numbers, all that was totally clear above the chatty Boulder crowd was drummer Shawn King’s fluid, worldly beats. Eventually, fantastic aerials dancers (known as the Slavic Sisters) and a captivating horn section (led by trumpeter Alice Hansen, my former bandmate in the Afronauts) emerged, along with more audible sounds from frontman Nick Urata’s various stringed instruments, as did the dynamism of a Colorado treasure.
Devotchka’s most powerful music – hypnotically cinematic, somewhere between Sketches of Spain and a Tim Burton soundtrack – effectively tells the same amorous, ghostly story over and over again; by transporting listeners to Romania, Russia, Italy, Spain and the American Southwest, it’s a story one doesn’t mind hearing over and over again. Especially on Halloween; or, in this case, the night after Halloween.
“All the Sand in All the Seas,” from 2011’s 100 Lovers (Devotchka’s most recent LP) kicked off the super-charged portion of the quartet’s performance. The lines “You are leaving here with me,” sung over almost electroclash rhythms with a gypsy tinge, were the first words Urata, in black-and-white skeletal makeup, sang that we could make out. But, remarkably, it was the instrumental sections – tempered with tuba, accordion, violin, various percussion struck by King’s drumsticks, and even theramin – of Devotchka’s set that felt the most narrative.
What’s special about Devotchka – the sense that its music is a living soundtrack, embodied by boldly romantic instruments, pulses and expressions and steeped in the traditions of mystical European folk music – actually delineates itself most effectively when you can’t understand a word of what Urata is singing, or when he’s not singing at all. Not that anything’s wrong with his lyrics; it’s just that the sense of mystery, especially on Halloween with ghoulish faces all around, somehow feels more alive, more cinematic, when music is telling the story instead of intelligible words.
When an expert theraminist (even the New Yorker has hailed Urata for that rare talent) is wailing away as mesmerizing aerial dancers manifest, and then emerge from, what look like fabric cocoons, words just get in the way. Perhaps, as the musically (and otherwise) intoxicated crowd around me suggested Saturday night, doing much of anything in Boulder on Halloween besides seeing Devotchka’s annual performance just gets in the way.