DeVotchKa’s shapeshifting show at the Music Box reveals substance in many styles


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By Gabriel Jones

DeVotchKa is a restless band. Their omnivorous, chameleon-like sound, blending Balkan, Bolero, punk, Mariachi and folk music, has further evolved on their new album “100 Lovers,” and their show Saturday night at the Music Box saw them shifting effortlessly through styles as quickly as the band members changed instruments.

From their first song, “The Alley,” also the new album’s opener, the quartet (a five-piece when they’re on the road) opened up the sonic landscape with Nick Urata’s haunted voice soaring somewhere between a croon and a wail over a delicate piano melody that effectively accompanied the images of space travel projected onto a screen behind the band. Then they returned to the Balkans for a rousing version of “Head Honcho” from 2008’s breakthrough “A Mad & Faithful Telling.”

The show’s visuals, shifting through images of wide-open rural spaces, blurred drives down empty roads and lone flying birds, as well as dark, quivering creatures in strange alien landscapes, suggested what the band is trying to become: a hopeful monster that’s forever changing, trying on new styles and looks, piling on layers atop layers in a relentless search for an identity composed of fragments and found objects. The circus-like atmosphere of all these styles, sounds and images reached its height when the band was joined on stage by the Slavic Sisters, a sultry aerialist duo that pirouetted acrobatically atop suspended curtains, leaving the audience at times astonished, if unsure at times where to look amid the excess of spectacles.

Few bands can make despair and loss sound so festive, and DeVotchKa are at their best when they bring together those conflicted emotions, with Urata’s tragic romantic warble, Tom Hagerman’s frenetic yet controlled violin and accordion, and Jeanie Schroeder’s dirge-like tuba, gloriously and somehow not incongruously decorated in Christmas lights. They also know how to build a mood, moving at one point from the delicate tension of Hagerman’s pizzicato violin into a full-bore groove, allowing Urata to play out his various roles of circus master, romantic seducer, tragic torch singer and gypsy lord, suggesting a band that’s somehow simultaneously playing a wedding, a funeral, a Bar Mitzvah and the end of the night at the local bar.

Highlights included “Ruthless,” with Urata crooning assuredly over a combination of mazurka and complex orchestral swell, and a particularly lush and tender rendition of “How It Ends,” probably the band’s most recognizable song. One of the evening’s few off notes saw an oddly restrained version of their current single “100 Other Lovers” – too tight, rushed and constrained after the band had spent so much of the night opening up space – but they quickly regained their stride long before the show’s close with a sort of Balkan dance party and the encore, which included a cover of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” that felt fully transplanted to Southern Europe.

Opening the evening were L.A. quartet Hands and Mariachi El Bronx, a reinvention of L.A. punk band the Bronx that sounds like Frank Black ditched the Catholics and took up with a Mariachi band. Frontman Matt Caughthran, with a voice that’s part gravel and part punk-soul, worked the crowd like a headliner (“We’ve successfully avoided regular jobs for, what, eight years? Let’s have a round of applause for the lazy slobs on stage.”) in an evening that saw everything combined, turned upside down, shaken up, danced around, romanced, seduced and spent.