Brave New World

DeVotchKa's cultural collisions make for fascinating art

Chicago is a city known for neighborhoods with unique little names that distinguish one from the next; among them can be found the artist/hipster/Hispanic mishmash of Wicker Park and the ethnic, working-class potpourri of Lincoln Square. There's also Uptown, a cultural blend as overrun with students from nearby Loyola University as with East Indian, German and Serbian families. But when Nicholas Urata and Jon Ellison of the Boulder-based, seven-piece DeVotchKa were full-fledged Chicagoans in 1995, it was an apartment on Cicero Avenue -- nestled in a nameless neighborhood on the outskirts of town, above the Bucket o' Suds bar -- that they called home.

Cicero runs through a part of town that is a demographic anomaly. Dominated by both Latin and Polish immigrants, the area is equal parts Mexico City and Warsaw ghetto. If you didn't look up to read the street signs every once in a while, you might think you'd been dropped off in some foreign land where two disparate cultures labor and scrape -- side by side -- to get by. On Cicero, you're as likely to find a street-corner kielbasa as a good bowl of spicy green chile, and you'll never want for music: The avenue seems to live off the stuff. Mariachi sounds beam from cars and apartment windows, competing for volume with polka and other Slavic stylings.

All of this exposure and eclecticism seem to have had a strange and immediate effect on the pair of musicians who'd come to Chicago with little on their minds but a desire to make music. His proximity to nonstop polka inspired Ellison, a bass player by training, to pursue an interest in the accordion. Urata, a studied trumpeter, guitarist and vocalist, simply absorbed. Sounds: little bits of everything, Mexican guitar flourishes, the melodramaticism of Slavic strings, Latin-styled percussion. Images: People living their lives, the ways they developed or destroyed them, how Cicero looked and felt at different times of day. He and Ellison frequented the Suds bar, where owner Joe Dano, a former Chicago jazz DJ, shared stories of jazz greats with his beer-swilling audience, of which Urata and Ellison became an eager -- and regular -- part.

DeVotchKa was inspired by the cultural melting pot of 
Chicago's Cicero Avenue.
DeVotchKa was inspired by the cultural melting pot of Chicago's Cicero Avenue.
DeVotchKa: Describing the band's sound involves a 
lot of hyphens.
DeVotchKa: Describing the band's sound involves a lot of hyphens.

"I think it all kind of filtered into our subconscious," says Urata, laughing. "The neighborhood was basically like its own subcontinent, completely removed from American culture. There was just so much music. When we were living there and it was all around us, we were drawn to it. It just stirred our blood."

It also inspired them to become direct participants in the area's hybrid culture. Urata and Ellison began hauling whatever instruments they could easily transport -- acoustic guitars, accordions, hand drums -- into the nearby subway station, one of the city's few subterranean train stops, and performing for confused commuters.

"There were all of these people trudging to work in terrible neighborhoods and terrible weather," Urata says, "and there we were, playing Spanish polka in the subway of the most depressing city in America." The response? "They hated us."

Weary Windy City travelers may not have appreciated the pair's efforts, but the busking gigs were hardly in vain. Rather, they were the first step in a series leading up to the current incarnation of DeVotchKa, a quizzical, neoclassical outfit that, in the past two years, has established itself as one of the most engaging live acts in the West. Embellishing themes from nearly every geographical nook and cranny imaginable, from Urata's quasi-yodeling and frequent south-of-the-border vocal stylings -- which find the New York-born Italian-American augmenting his physical resemblance to Desi Arnaz -- to classical string arrangements, tango flirtations and Russian, gypsy and American folk themes. (The word devotchka, incidentally, isn't similarly rooted in any exotic culture, but a fictional one. It's the word that Alex DeLarge, Malcom McDowell's character in A Clockwork Orange, uses to describe women, as in "a little of the old in-out, in-out on a weepy young devotchka.") The band's beguiling ax-driven orchestrations might even christen a new subcategory or two: gypsybilly, or chambercore.

The second step, then, came after Ellison -- tired of Chicago's music-industry racket -- moved to Denver, and Urata followed, leaving behind a gig playing with a successful Chicago band, the Reejers.

"The Reejers were picked up by the William Morris Agency, the same people who manage Sugar Ray and bands like that," Urata says. "It got to a point where there were all of these industry concerns, and it really felt like a job for me. I had this desire to strip it down to music, to not hide behind volume or imaging. I think that's what drove me to DeVotchKa."

To those who have experienced one of DeVotchKa's live shows, or listened to the band's self-titled recordings, Urata's pledged resistance to volume may seem at odds with the auditory blast that the band emits. Each instrument is amplified, and when he's onstage, Urata sings through not one, but two vocal microphones; presumably, one is for his impassioned wailing, the other to make him sound as if he's underwater. DeVotchKa's frenetic delivery -- peppered with a distinctive '50s-era performance ethic (think the Tropicana Club on a particularly hot night in Havana) -- belies its infancy as a largely acoustic affair.

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