When you think of a full orchestra backing up a contemporary musical act, you probably imagine an established artists like Lady Gaga, Bono or maybe Beyonce´ at the Grammys. But last week in Northeast Ohio, an emerging band called The Speedbumps played on stage at the Palace Theatre in Canton, with the full Canton Symphony Orchestra.
The result was a magical performance that left the packed house stunned and gratified to have been there. The concert was in anticipation of the band's new CD release, Soil to the Seed, which will be release on April 21.
How did a popular regional band land a spot on the Symphony Orchestra's schedule? Well, to some degree, it happened because the Akron/Canton/Cleveland metro area is a major market with a small town feel, where personal connections and a bit of drive can make seemingly impossible things happen.
Cleveland is the sort of town where someone like Brian Glazen, a filmmaker shooting a promotional video for the Cleveland Cavaliers, can still call the mayor's office and get the city to blink on and off all the municipal lights to create a cool cityscape sequence. It's a town where young entrepreneurs can accomplish -- in days -- things that might take years in larger markets like Chicago or New York.
Here, members of the world famous Cleveland Orchestra have been experimenting with unusual crosspollinations, too. A program called Classical Revolution takes place at trendy dive bar, The Happy Dog Cafe, in Cleveland, where orchestra members perform in the ultra casual setting and sometimes collaborate across genres. These collaborations are also the result of a personal relationship, made more likely by a smaller market.
A few years back, Joshua Smith, principal flute of The Cleveland Orchestra, wandered into the bar and started a conversation about music with Sean Watterson, who had recently returned to his hometown of Cleveland to open a bar, after a career in international finance
The close community in Northeast Ohio means that there are often something like three degrees of separation, between an artist and a desired collaborator. "Northeast Ohio is special that way," said Susie Frazier, a local artist and Speedbumps supporter. "You can always find someone who knows someone you want to meet."
In the case of the Speedbumps, the Executive Director of the Canton Symphony, Michelle Mullaly, heard the band in a local bar when she was out with her husband, who said he thought the band would sound great with the symphony. Several other points of connection emerged and she finally called Erik Urycki, the bands principal singer and songwriter. Urycki assumed it was a joke at first.
"But it was far from a joke -- the music of The Speedbumps sounds like it was written to include a full orchestra," said Mulally. "I was thrilled with the latest concert and cannot wait to do it again!
Rachel Waddell, Assistant Conductor of the Canton Symphony and Speedbumps singer/songwriter Erik Urycki, rehearsing in Canton (Shawn Wood/Studio 7 Photography )
"The collaboration between us and the symphony is a testament to the community's commitment to promoting its artists and its willingness to think outside the box," Uryicki said.
Of course, the biggest factor in drawing the orchestra and the capacity crowd is the band, The Speedbumps, who have worked hard to earn the attention and respect of the classical community and music enthusiasts in Ohio and around the Northeast.
The Speedbumps have honed a spare, tuneful style that seems to hover effortlessly between rootsy Americana and alternative pop. The songs have an inevitability to their melodies and smart laconic lyrics that create a precise atmosphere and tone, but leave enough to the imagination to keep the listener's mind engaged.
The band, which includes Abby Luri on vocals and guitar, Sam Kristoff on cello, Kevin Martinez on bass, and Pat Hawkins and Danny Jenkins on drums, lock into one tight groove after another, exhibiting restraint in equal measure with a fiery passion that builds through the performance. Luri also co-writes songs with Uryki.
The orchestral arrangements for the night were written by bassist Martinez, who studied music theory and composition at DePaul University in Chicago.
"What was most interesting to me was how comfortable and responsive the orchestral musicians were with us," Martinez said. "Its easy to forget that these highly trained musicians do not listen to orchestral music alone. There were no barriers to work past, musical or otherwise. It was an honor to work with such a talented group of artists."
The concert at the Palace Theatre began with Roger Hoover -- another stellar performer from Northeast Ohio, who writes mordant songs and plays guitar in a bluesy Americana style.
The Canton Orchestra opened the set with Andrew Bird's Plasticities, arranged for Orchestra by the Speedbumps bass player, Kevin Martinez. Rachel Waddell, assistant conductor of the Canton Symphony conducted the orchestra. Waddell's continuous smile throughout the night betrayed her excitement to be conducting the unusual pairing and to have the hall filled with many who might not ordinarily attend a classical show.
The Speedbumps first song was one of their catchiest tunes, which has received a good deal of regional radio play, "Oh My Mistakes." The song's refrain, "I know to be with you, gotta be a better man, can't do the things I do," typifies Uryki's writing style, which often tackles complex human emotions with elegant economy.
The orchestra supported the band with long legato phrases that added a dramatic layer to the songs, but never overwhelmed the largely acoustic ensemble.
The set also included, "Chasing you Down," a romantic two step, with a tight arrangement that featured some inventive rhythm breaks. Other highlights were "Red in the Morning," "Opposites in love," and "Cabin Song."
Several of the songs, "Strikes and Gutters," "Red in the Morning" and "In the Moment" were from the band's new album and were played for the first time for a live audience. The grooves rocked a hair harder than previous material, but the Speedbumps unmistakable sound shined through.
Both the Canton Symphony Orchestra and the Speedbumps say they plan to collaborate again in the future.