If you’ve seen Little Miss Sunshine, you’ll may remember the music. It was almost perfect for the movie – a wistful but sometimes happy mix of instrumental mariachi-esque and romantic music. It reminded me of a mix between Sufjan Stevens and Yann Tiersen, but in a good way (actually, Sufjan Stevens did have a couple of tracks in the movie). Alongside personal recommendations, movies and TV shows are where I hear new music from, so I sought out the soundtrack.
It turned out that practically all of the music was made by one band, DeVotchKa, who’ve been around for a few years now. They’ve been under the radar, but the success of Little Miss Sunshine has given them a much larger stage. Even so, when I went to a gig they put on at 93 Feet East in London, while it might have been pretty full, it certainly wasn’t completely full.
Now, I don’t go to a lot of concerts, so perhaps my bar is set a bit low, but then again I’ve seen a few acts who are supposed to be very good live, like Arcade Fire and the Kaiser Chiefs; I’ve been in front of the front row at Scissor Sisters; and I’ve been at smaller gigs with bands like Rilo Kiley. None of them even touched DeVotchKa.
I knew that it was going to be good from the moment they walked on stage. The reason is because this happened at the exact minute they were supposed to be playing. This might sound completely ridiculous, but I don’t think anyone likes having to wait around half an hour for things to get started. You might say that it’s the music that matters, not whether they turn up on time. I agree, but wouldn’t you like it if you could have both? Their performing on time showed that they were professional, and they had respect for their audience.
Professional doesn’t have to mean overplanned or deliberate. It doesn’t mean you can’t be spontaneous. What it means is that you are very, very good at what you do, and in this case, the band was very, very good at playing music; almost certainly classically trained. Tom Hagerman on the piano, accordion and violin looked nothing else than a city lawyer who’d inadvertently stumbled into Brick Lane, and yet he played with real verve and energy. Jeanie Schroder on the sousaphone and double bass, and Shawn King on the drums and trumpet were a little less visible but no less talented.
Besides being the band’s lead singer, Nick Urata plays the trumpet, piano, bouzouki and (this is the best bit) the theremin. Nick has a strange, haunting, romantic voice that he really belts out – I’m not really sure how he doesn’t lose his voice more often, really. He also has a wonderful stage presence, throwing himself into his singing, swaying around and regularly swigging from a bottle of wine.
The band played with genuine heart, and this led to an audience that frequently broke out into clapping and singing along. Granted, this is easier to do when your audience is only 150 rather than 1500, but it didn’t need any encouragement at all. More surprisingly, apparently this happens at every single concert they do. And in case you think I was simply starstruck, here’s a second opinion from someone who’s been to far more gigs than myself.
What am I trying to say here? It’s not just that I happen to like DeVotchKa a lot, and that they’re great at playing live. It’s that turning up an hour late, or storming off after three songs, or being completely disaffected and distanced – none of these things make you a better band. They don’t make you play better music. You might scoff at this, but it can’t be denied that crazy, self-destructive bands get all the press, and that this behaviour is in part tolerated because ‘it makes better music’.
Why not have both? Why not have great music, and a band that is professional and plays with heart? Or are we more interested in their foolish antics than what they’re supposed to do?