DeVotchKa with Seattle Symphony


Now there’s something missing when

You’re kissing me
It’s subtle yet it’s gone
And then I’m suspicious
And then it gets vicious
And then it’s a hole right through the heart

And you said you loved me
I thought you loved me


It was a pitch black, rain-soaked evening as we headed over to Benaroya Hall, but besides being cold, wet, and wearing inappropriate shoes for the weather, my heart was heavy and conflicted. It had been less than forty-eight hours since the world learned the news of David Bowie’s death; it felt like time had been standing still and my head had been swathed in a hazy cloud of sorrow and disbelief. I wasn’t sure how I could muster up the energy or enthusiasm for a show by any other artist, no matter how much I’d been looking forward to it.

I first heard DeVotchKa completely by chance in 2005. I was only half-listening to KEXP as background to whatever I was doing at the time when they announced their live in-studio guest. I’d never heard of DeVotchKa, and went about my business, but my ears quickly perked up when I took notice of what was coming out of the speakers. This was not your typical alt-rock band and I was compelled to stop and really listen. They performed “Dearly Departed,” one of the saddest songs you’ll ever hear until, that is, you listen to “How It Ends,” the title song of their third album which they also performed that day. “Such a Lovely Thing” got my attention with its oom pah pah beat. I wondered incredulously to myself if I was hearing the song correctly. Was this rock band actually incorporating a tuba? The answer was “yes,” although I would later learn the instrument is more specifically a sousaphone. The band then did a complete turn with a cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” — albeit with their own faster-paced, gypsy-esque take on it. Throughout it all was Nick Urata’s emotional voice, tinged with some undefinable, foreign accent (although he is American born and raised), expertly expressing hope, regret, and yearning. Who was this mysterious group of musicians that combined alternative rock, klezmer, and mariachi all with an orchestral undertone? It was confusing and unusual, and it worked. I immediately purchased all their albums, and in the succeeding years my romance with the band has not waned.

DeVotchKa (Russian for “girl”) is a four-person band based in Denver, armed with an array of instruments that give them their unique sound. In addition to guitars, drums, the aforementioned sousaphone, and Nick’s unique vocals, between them they also play upright bass, accordion, violin, trumpet, maracas, and even the theremin. They started out as a backing band for a burlesque show, and that influence remains a distinct part of their sound. In fact, these days they often travel with their own burlesque-style rope dancers for venues that can accommodate it. Since those early days, in addition to recording DeVotchKa albums the band have also scored numerous soundtracks, starting in 2006 with the absolutely charming Little Miss Sunshine, a film which introduced the band to a wider audience.

Over the years I’ve seen DeVotchKa several times in more typical rock band venues, and they always put on a fun, lively, passionate show. But this sold-out performance with the Seattle Symphony was bound to be really special. So, despite the cold and the rain and the sorrow, we walked into the elegant symphony hall ready to share the joy of music with 2,500 other fans.

From fantastic seats we watched as the stage filled up with black-clad symphony members and then one by one, the band came on. DeVotchKa’s music evokes a wide range of emotions and feelings. One minute your tapping your toe with a big smile on your face, imagining yourself dancing around a fire to a gypsy-style camp song. The next you’re driving down a lonely, dusty Mexican road trailed by a mariachi band. And the next your heart is breaking as all your past loves, regrets, and remorse play out in black and white images in your mind’s eye. Back all of this up with a renowned symphony in a concert hall with superb acoustics and you’ve got one exceptional night.

Rumor has it the band is working on a new record, but there was no new music with this tour; instead, they played a range of songs from all of their previous six studio releases. It was a phenomenal show on the part of everyone on stage that night, but the performance left me with so many questions. How does both the band and the symphony prepare for a night like this? Who arranged the music? Do the symphony members like playing this type of music, or are they going through the motions to help bring in a younger audience? (Although we did notice that at least two oboists were obviously having a great time.) And who was at the sold-out show for DeVotchKa, and who for the Symphony? Note to Seattle Symphony: next time you should incorporate a post-performance Q+A!

Throughout the evening,  I couldn’t help but wonder if DeVotchKa would play a David Bowie song, or at least make some acknowledgement of his passing. It certainly wasn’t required, but Bowie’s impact in the world of music is so immense that it would be hard to imagine any modern rock band not at least a little influenced by him. My question was answered when they came out for their final encore. The symphony remained respectfully seated on stage, but only DeVotchKa performed “The Man Who Sold the World,” which seemed a fitting choice. An homage to Bowie, who described it as a “signature” song, but also a nod to Seattle’s own Kurt Cobain who covered the song with his band Nirvana before his death in 1994. DeVotchKa’s performance did the song great justice; making it their own with their unique style while keeping it true to the original.

We passed upon the stair

We spoke of was and when
Although I wasn’t there

He said I was his friend
Which came as some surprise

I spoke into his eyes
I thought you died alone

A long long time ago

It was a perfect ending to the evening, and I think it was exactly what everyone in the audience needed — you could just feel it in the air. I’m glad my grief didn’t prevent me from attending this outstanding show. What better way to honor a great artist than to see other great artists who have followed and can take you through the whole range of emotions that life encompasses in one evening. We love, we grieve, we laugh, we cry. Some days are harder than others, and certainly more empty now, but this evening proved that the artistic spirit is alive and well. DeVotchKa and the Seattle Symphony shared a beautiful night with us. I think it lifted everyone’s spirits and made us all feel a little more at peace.

Hold your grandmother’s bible to your breast

Gonna put it to the test
You wanted to be blessed

And in your heart you know it to be true
You know what you gotta do
They all depend on you

And you already know
Yeah, you already know how this will end

There is no escape from the slave catcher’s songs
For all of the loved ones gone
Forever’s not so long

And in your soul they poked a million holes
But you never let em show
Come on, it’s time to go

And you already know
Yeah, you already know how this will end

Now you’ve seen his face
And you know that there’s a place in the sun
For all that you’ve done
For you and your children

No longer shall you need
You always wanted to believe
Just ask and you’ll receive
Beyond your wildest dreams

And you already know
Yeah, you already know how this will end

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