Last Night: John Vanderslice and the Magik*Magik Orchestra at the Great American Music Hall

Categories: Last Night, Music
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John Vanderslice and the Magik*Magik Orchestra
Friday, January 30, 2009
Great American Music Hall
Review By Melissa Baron

Better Than: Shows where artists use keyboards and samples artificially replicate the sound of real instruments (ie violins, horns).

As a budding young tuba player, I immersed myself in the richly diverse world of classical music. I played concertos, operas, symphonies, contemporary compositions, and scores. In high school, marching band introduced me to arrangements of pop songs for full bands. We played Michael Jackson, Fleetwood Mac, Tower of Power. As I grew up, I developed a taste for indie rock. I wanted to continue to play music without learning a new "rock" instrument like guitar, bass, or drums, but I wanted to play my music. I wanted to be the tuba queen of indie music. I wanted to rock out, huge horn and all. I assumed the two would never mix. Magik*Magik Orchestra proved me wrong.

San Francisco's Magik*Magik Orchestra played in a 30-piece configuration for their performance with local indie hero John Vanderslice. The show was a benefit for the Orchestra--they are the house orchestra for Tiny Telephone, Vanderslice's recording studio that celebrated its tenth year  with this performance. In those 10 years the studio has been used to record such artists as Death Cab for Cutie, Cex, Deerhoof, Nada Surf, Mates of State, the Mountain Goats, Mike Watt, John Doe, and Okkervil River.

Vanderslice, his drummer Matthias Bossi, and keyboardist Ian Bjornstad  took the stage first to play a few songs. By the second song they'd made their first mistake. A few seconds in, Vanderslice started laughing and stopped the band. He had messed up and explained it would have been fine, only Bjornstad hadn't caught on to the mistake in time to redeem the song. "This shit's gonna get pro real fast," laughed Vanderslice. Once the orchestra came out, it sure did.

Instruments packed the stage. The drum kit sat in the middle, with Vanderslice and Bjornstad pushed to the front. On the left sat a crowd of violins and violas, on the right cellos and stand up basses, and in the back vocalists and horns. All had chairs, stands and microphones, making for a very cluttered stage.

The orchestral sound melted into Vanderslice's beautiful voice. Each song sounded more full and rich with the hollow accompaniment of the string bass, bold punch of the trumpet, and the harmony between the lead vocals and the all-female choir singing backup. The guitar fused with the warble of the violins and violas. The cellos played fiercely, giving texture to each song.

While the orchestra sounded great, improved execution would have drastically changed the performance. Not all venues are acoustically suitable for an orchestra without extensive planning, and not all instrumentations provide the necessary balance of sounds. Many of the wind sounds were lost. The shape of the french horn caused its sound to push straight up, nearly missing the audience completely. The woodwinds were unintelligible, the sound unable to penetrate the densely packed stage in the first place. Flute and clarinet arrangements were lost in a jumble of chairs, stands, and bodies even with microphones all over the stage. The vocals, cello and bass almost overpowered the rest of the orchestra.Despite the acoustic tragedy, the performance was thrilling to watch and an innovative concept. Perhaps I can resurrect my adolescent dreams of marrying my classical training to my indie rock tendencies. Magik*Magik, you keep childhood band dreams alive.

Critic's Notebook

Personal bias: I think it's obvious. I'm a big ol' band geek. My issues with acoustics and instrumentation come from years of nerdy symphony and wind ensembles. Not everyone noticed, I'm sure.

Random detail: Vanderslice said this was the first time the band played the song "When It Hits My Blood" live.

By the way: Magik*Magik has a show with Tin Hat at the JCC on 2/19.
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