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DeVotchKa may be the best bar band in the world. To the tune of “Comrade Z”, heard live at the House of Blues, March 9, 2013, I found myself remembering a small, dark hotel cafe in northern Paris, where I once drank five-euro rum & cokes while a circle of locals strum and drum their way through an impromptu set.
It is DeVotchKa’s flawless repetition of the casual, barroom aesthetic, even in a soulless void like the House of Blues, that is their trademark. Originally a burlesque back-up group, Devotchka’s work spans several different ethnic histories, one Oscar-nominated mumblecore flick, a video game and the bedrooms of this generation’s sensitive, “sincere” teenagers.
And they know how to play a show. Appearing tonight as an ensemble, the traditional line-up of guitar, drums, bass, and keyboards added sousaphone, a fresh swell of violins, and the sweet babble of a clarinet and an oboe. Frontman Nick Urata’s voice mixed equal parts Bob Dylan nasality and Morrissey theatricality on the pit-of-your-stomach “You Love Me”, his deep wail accompanied by the crisp snap of nylon strings.
The music was perfect. However, the audience lacked the mobility that the earnest music asked of it. It parallels the difficulty Stravinsky and Dvorak must have found in transposing the folk songs of peasants to the stoic atmosphere of concert halls in the early 20th century; DeVotchKa’s challenge is similar. So much of their eastern rhythms and latin melodies rely on vitality, breath blown into the tunes by the far away lives they suggests. A vitality that the arms-crossed lovers populating the House of Blues could not provide.
What will later generations say to us, when we tell them we did not dance? A nasty tendency of indie clubs is the lack of motion.The head-bobbing and gentle shuffle of the crowd at DeVotchKa were not wide-open, carelessly graceful movements the crack of the snare and hum of the cello demanded.
The lackluster crowd has a lot to do with the redefinition of the concert “experience,” in an age where the internet has made us all amateur critics. I am encouraged to share my nights through my social network, so when I go to shows, I silently take notes to relay to friends later. There is a general feeling that I don’t want to miss a moment, so I focus intently on the actual performance, the people on stage. I am absorbed in my own world, the crowd around me a distraction from, rather than an essential part of, the experience.
Now imagine a room full of people like me, and you have the essential 21st century concert experience like DeVotchKa at the House of Blues. Human beings are social creatures, and acting contrary to large group induces feelings of discomfort. So when a large crowd does not dance, there’s very little that can be done to change that unless everyone simultaneously came to the realization that if only they started getting down, the rest of the room would too.
There are of course, the rebels. To my delight, a middle aged couple swung around recklessly to the encore, “I Cried Like A Silly Boy,” in an open space wide enough for a truck to pass through. My smile restored, the band moved into their final number, “How It Ends.” The song’s emotional swirl brought even my cynical, stoic camerawoman to display emotion. It filled me up – like a heavy, warm drink in that imagined barroom – to hear the band end with their theme for everyone’s inner-hero to give over to emotion and sink, defeated, into bed.