Cue the strings

Front Range folk fixture DeVotchKa teams up with Boulder Philharmonic for Macky Auditorium performance


[Editor’s note: This story features additional reporting by Jezy J. Gray]

With a career-long embrace of unlikely instruments like the theremin, sousaphone and bouzouki, Colorado folk outfit DeVotchKa has never been the sort of rock band that fits neatly into a single box. Boulder Philharmonic Executive Director Sara Parkinson says that’s part of what makes their upcoming musical collaboration such an exciting partnership. 

“We’re trying to get new people into the hall and appeal to a broader audience,” says Parkinson, who will conduct the orchestra during the upcoming May 6 concert and has performed with members of DeVotchKa in various chamber settings. “We like to amplify local voices and local talent, and putting [DeVotchKa] on the stage for the first time at Macky Auditorium is another special part of this collaboration. It’s about time, right?”

While pop crossovers are nothing new for the Boulder Phil or other classical institutions, the orchestra’s partnership with DeVotchKa promises a wild ride for concertgoers as one of the Front Range’s most celebrated and genre-defying bands performs live with some of the area’s leading classical musicians.

The collaboration with the Boulder Phil is a natural fit, according to DeVotchKa frontman and founder Nick Urata, because of the group’s deep Boulder connections — starting with multi-instrumentalist Tom Hagerman’s classical experience.

“Tom was an alternate for the Phil [when DeVotchKa formed in 1994] and so we befriended all these players, and we always recruited them to play on our records,” Urata says. “And then we just started getting more ambitious with our arrangements, and finally it was kind of a perfect storm when the Colorado Symphony started to reach out to pop acts … we were ready to go, and we recorded a live album and got to do, like, five Red Rocks shows with them. It’s been kind of a dream come true for us.”

Boulder Philharmonic Executive Director Sara Parkinson. Photo courtesy Boulder Philharmonic.

Thanks to the talent and training of Boulder Phil musicians, rehearsals for collaborations with pop groups is minimal. Urata says he’s used to it by now.

“You really kind of have to have your shit wired up front,” he says. “Because the symphony’s on such a clock, you have pretty much, like, five minutes of rehearsal before the day of the show. If something’s wrong, everything’s going to fall apart. So there is basically no rehearsal. That part’s pretty scary.”

Urata’s joke about “five minutes” of rehearsal time isn’t far off the mark — but for an ensemble like the Boulder Phil and a conductor like Parkinson, a few quick runs through the material are all they need to craft a next-level performance. 

“I’ve met with the band once already, and I’ll meet with them on loading day … but when you have professional orchestra musicians, they’ve had the music for a couple of weeks,” Parkinson says. “We all come together on the day of the performance earlier in the day and spend a few hours together, going through the charts — and then it’s showtime.”

And when the lights dim ahead of the evening’s first note, rather than playing with a click track to ensure near-perfect time, DeVotchKa will rely on drummer Shawn King’s internal rhythm to surf the orchestra’s giant sound. “The feeling of having a symphony behind you is like catching a giant wave,” Urata says. 

‘Niwot’s curse’

DeVotchKa has come a long way from the band’s early days of performing at parties and bars, having since forged its own lane in the music world by marrying the energy of indie-rock with the romance of TV Westerns and old-world charm of Urata’s upbringing of “childhood backyard parties with old Italian dudes playing accordion.” 

Urata now splits his time between Los Angeles and Colorado as a composer for TV shows and films — from A Series of Unfortunate Events to Little Miss Sunshine — while also working as an international touring rock musician.

“A lot of times I do get hired for a film score and I’ll have to just sort of leave hints and a trail of breadcrumbs that I actually have a band I’ve been working on for 20 years, and we have some good stuff,” Urata jokes. “And a lot of people just don’t care. They don’t care about your background.”

The New York City native says he was drawn to Colorado because “it seemed like a fantasy land,” especially because his first time in Boulder included a now-legendary Jane’s Addiction show on the Nothing’s Shocking tour in the late ’80s — something he says changed his life.

“I had never seen a band like that, and their performance that night was absolutely unforgettable,” he says. “It was the same [weekend as] the Mall Crawl … I met all these super cool people and I thought, ‘Wow, Boulder is the coolest.’ I got that curse that night — Niwot’s Curse.”

Here Urata is referencing the local legend surrounding Southern Arapaho Chief Niwot, who allegedly spoke of “the Curse of Boulder Valley,” which has come to describe the breathtaking region’s knack for turning tourists into long-term residents. DeVotchKa’s music is now entwined with this stretch of the Front Range like Ennio Morricone’s scores are connected with the landscapes in classic films like Once Upon a Time in the West, and the collaboration with the Boulder Phil will bring that relationship to life right here where Urata got the curse. 

ON THE BILL: DeVotchKa with the Boulder Philharmonic. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 6, Macky Auditorium, 1595 Pleasant St., Boulder. Tickets here.

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