Livestream Review: Nu Deco Ensemble & Larkin Poe Rock Roots Music w/ Orchestral Arrangement in Miami

Show Reviews

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Miami, Florida’s orchestra Nu Deco Ensemble hosted a virtual live stream concert on December 12th, 2020, collaborating with Rebecca and Megan Lovell of Larkin Poe and also featuring a world premiere of “Out of the Gate” and a new arrangement of “Wanderlust” by Pascal le Boeuf, in partnership with National YoungArts Foundation. The concert kicked off with an arrangement of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and “Another One Bites the Dust” by Nu Deco. The concert also presented “a symphonic reimagination” of the music of Led Zeppelin and an encore with Larkin Poe of the Zeppelin song “Whole Lotta Love.”

The performance was hosted and conducted by Jacomo Bairos, the co-founder of Nu Deco, and featured Rock ‘n Roll flair like lighting effects and smoke machines, as well as a documentarian feel to pre-recorded interview spots and behind-the-scenes discussions of how this music was arranged for performance. Bairos and his “genre-bending” chamber orchestra also shook up traditional classical presentation by calling out and applauding for key players Rock-concert style at various points in the concert being streamed in 29 countries.

After a Queen intro, the orchestra performed Pascal Le Boeuf’s world premiere of “Out of the Gate,” and this was followed by a video presentation of “Wanderlust” recorded from Philadelphia with La Boeuf on piano. “Out of the Gate” was particularly interesting as inspired by Heavy Metal music and described by La Boeuf as a “headbanger” of a piece. Violins and cellos took over parts that fans might associate with heavy metal guitar riffs, both in a brash way and through subtle, underlying rhythms. Electronic and psychedelic effects suggested reverb and the woodwind seemed to take over some of the drum work, with the brass section suggesting vocals.

“Wanderlust,” however, was noteworthy, because it allowed elements of improv, something La Boeuf intentionally incorporated alongside traditional musical notation for the performers. The piece also brought in electric guitar and drums more directly, showing the composers’ close consideration of the intersections of classical and popular music.

Larkin Poe joined audiences via a video intro where they talked about their excitement at traveling away from their home in Nashville after a stationary nine months. Bairos showed them the musical notation that had been created for the orchestra to perform their songs as arranged by Sam Hyken, Nu Deco’s other co-founder. They don’t notate their music at all these days, so this was very interesting for them. Growing up playing classical piano and violin as kids and then taking their Roots Rock ‘n Roll to Nu Deco felt like “coming home,” they said, and they chose songs for the event which they thought would be most fun for an orchestra to perform and for them to experience with an orchestra.

Larkin Poe played a total of seven songs with the orchestra for their main set, of which five were taken from their 2020 album, Self Made Man, one was a cover, and one was a very personal song from their album Reskinned. They jumped in with the title track from their latest album, “She’s a Self Made Man,” with both Rebecca and Megan on guitar, joined by a third guitarist in the orchestra and the arrangement definitely captured the original attitude and fun of the song.

What was immediately evident was that Rebecca’s vocals could more than stand up alongside full orchestration. That was also due, no doubt, to Hyken’s careful arrangement of the music to make sure that vocals still received a lot of focus.

A cover of Bessie Queen’s song “Sometimes” started with Larkin Poe and all the musicians clapping together and an acapella opening, laying down rhythm. The orchestra came in with brass as a counter point and the Lovells returned to acapella at the end. This arrangement really showed the potential of traditional roots music in conversation with orchestral work. There was a very organic feel to the musical conversation between genres and approaches and Larkin Poe did an excellent job upholding their “ambassador” status for Roots music on this piece.

On “Every Bird That Flies,” also from Self Made Man, the composition felt gently slowed down, giving the vocals even more room and adding an amazing electric guitar solo from the orchestra, bringing another layer to the song alongside Megan Lovell’s famed slide guitar. “Back Down South,” again from Self Made Man, namechecked a lot of heroes and locales, effectively bringing Larkin Poe’s upbringing and heritage into this new venue. The song worked in lyrics and music from the Allman Brothers’ “Blue Sky” before returning to the original song, which also gave a nice nod to the Florida location of the performance. The Allman Brothers are already alluded to in the song, so it was a natural move.

“Danger Angel,” from Self Made Man, reminded audiences of a harder, less sentimental edge to Larkin Poe’s music, but rather than overpowering the song’s original energy, the orchestra’s brass formed a soft layer underlying the central rhythm. Violins brought in flair and variations around central themes before the song became very epic. With the lift of woodwinds, the orchestral arrangement became even more Roots and quite driven.

Rebecca Lovell explained the origin and personal connections for the song “Mad as a Hatter” from Larkin Poe’s album Reskinned, written in memory of their paternal grandfather who dealt with mental illness in his lifetime. Rebecca said that writing the song was “cathartic” and has “sparked conversation” worldwide, bringing “blessings” in its wake. Megan Lovell’s slide guitar formed the bones of the song, as well as double vocal layering from Rebecca and Megan. The orchestral arrangement, however, was even larger scale than on the other songs, reminding that this really was an entirely new piece that audiences were hearing rather than just a case of accompaniment. The moody highs and lows of the song became further reaching and even more haunting in this new form.

Larkin Poe’s set with Nu Deco concluded very appropriately with “Tears of Blue to Gold,” one of their most soulful Rockers from Self Made Man, a song about Elvis that explores the sonic roots of Rock in Gospel. The orchestra’s drummer laid down the song with Rebecca’s guitar and this version really emphasized the Rockabilly undertones of the song even more than the studio version, bringing those tones in earlier and backing them with soaring brass in a way reminiscent of Big Band music. The emotive, reflective elements of the song were suggested by violins and underlying Gospel themes really came out fully in last quarter of the arrangement.

For the last segment of the concert, a video intro to Led Zeppelin took audiences into the composition and rehearsal space with Sam Hyken and Hyken and Bairos discussed the huge impact of Led Zeppelin’s music on Rock, but also on music and culture, generally. Hyken hinted at his inspiration and approach when arranging the music as a lover of heavy guitar-bass riffs where bass and guitar are playing the same thing, something for which he finds parallels in classical music.

The orchestra performed an arrangement of several Led Zeppelin songs as one whole presentation, including “The Rain Song,” “Kashmir,” “Stairway to Heaven” and more. It was clear that the songs chosen had definitely been picked for their looming, epic possibilities, bringing out a great deal of bass and working double time with violins and cellos. There was also use of electric guitars and drums, so the underlying elements of the original songs were not replaced but rather built up to magnified proportions. But, as you might expect, “Stairway to Heaven” was handled with a great deal of subtlety, with plenty of the outro left to violins.

In a suprising encore, Rebecca and Megan Lovell rejoined the orchestra, and Rebecca spoke about meeting Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, a fellow mandolin player, who showed her some playing techniques and acted totally “accessible” to her as a young person. She also explained that she and Megan had previously played a version of “Whole Lotta Love” on their Youtube channel some time ago and were happy to reprise it. The song seemed made for Rebecca’s vocals and the orchestra brought in tom-toms and drums coming with Megan’s slide guitar taking the lead, with several spotlight moments really highlighting her masterful work.

Larkin Poe will also be performing a holiday livestream show, “A Shakepoe Family Christmas”, on December 19th, 2020.

Nu Deco Ensemble will be hosting their next virtual concert on January 30th, 2021 featuring Cory Wong.

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