The Ballroom Thieves @ Jammin Java, Washington DC - 19 Apr 2016.
It’s not often that I feel as if I get what’s happening on stage. That’s not to say that I can’t understand or interpret what an artist is doing, it’s just that tonight I feel as if The Ballroom Thieves presented a fully formed vision; one with subtle hints as to what’s to come in their future. The Ballroom Thieves, a folk trio from Boston, are accompanied by a fully fledged string orchestra this evening. There must be over twenty people on stage, all with instruments of varying sizes. I'd be lying if there wasn't some trepidation. It's an intimidating setup, one that was far from expected. It's ambitious to say the least. They are backed by the Maine Youth Rock Orchestra; an outfit not dissimilar to the School of Rock. The group tonight consists of about twenty teenagers conducted under Kevin Oates. The group does an excellent job of really pushing The Ballroom Thieves’ agenda tonight, making their pieces cinematic in scope.
Usually with folk shows the talent is fighting over the sounds of the kitchen; an ensemble of broken dishes and silverware emphasizes the spaces and pauses. That's not the case tonight; immediately the sheer volume overtakes me. Everything is amplified. The resulting compositions sound as if they are part of a larger piece, like a film or hour-long drama and ultimately that raises a couple of interesting questions; firstly does the orchestra with their volume and emotion drown out the smaller subtle parts of songs? With the additional backing, initially it felt as if that may be the case, ultimately though I feel as if that was part of the plan. While we may not be able to hear every slide, breath, or legato, we instead are forced to envision these pieces as something that is greater than the sum of its parts.
I was especially worried about the vocals but all three members performed with exceptional gusto. In fact, the vocals were some of the strongest both in volume and emotion that I have heard regardless of genre. The other question that the orchestra backing had me thinking about was about honesty; meaning was their addition unintentionally weight or emotion to The Ballroom Thieves songs? Fortunately the Maine Youth Rock Orchestra took some time to allow the band to breathe on their own midway through the set so I could answer that question.
Initially, guitarist Martin Earley does most of the heavy lifting. His quiet finger picking slides across his acoustic, offering a nice juxtaposition to his strong vocals. Earlier I suspected that the band might be compensating for the orchestra but that was not the case. And as the set continues each member is highlighted as they each take the lead. As they continued, I was surprised how little we heard Calin Peters play her cello. I imagined that we would hear more of that particular instrument once the orchestra left. When there is but one cello player amongst the typical, it is easy, at least sonically, to pick it out and understand what it is that it adds to the compositions. The anger, rage, confusion, and sadness can completely change the dynamic of a song or even an entire album (see The Ugly Organ). Here Calin has to compete with an entire string orchestra. So aside from a few flourishes any addition that she brings to the pieces is ultimately enveloped by those that play as back up. Fortunately though, she finally picks up here piece and let's go. It works well with the last piece; Martin finally gets to pummel his guitar and Calin gets to add the flourishes I wrote of earlier.
And it is that last piece that they play without the orchestra that is their strongest. I was surprised with the energy coming from just a bass, tom and crash. Devin does an excellent job of getting the most out of his handicapped set and it really worked well. With some of the earlier pieces it felt as if the backing could be interchangeable, each member a soloist; but without relying too heavily on one particular member the piece really stood out as something important.
The orchestra returns and the score continues; the beat of the drums floods the orchestra. Playing the theme to Game of Thrones reinforces the idea of the cinematic. At this point, I feel as if this idea of cinematic is intentional. Though I am not one for medieval fantasy and dragons, small tours showcasing the power of your songwriting backed by an orchestra is a strong way to sell yourself. The dragon talk continues as they close the set and at this point it seems safe to say that, the band too, feels something cinematic about tonight too. I can see it, there are dragons in their future, and all they need is a good agent. Game of Thrones, How to Train your Dragon, this is folksy traveling music with a little bite. If The Ballroom Thieves are not scoring some medieval adventure in the next decade, then I am not a marginally talented, unemployable, tolerated writer. Get on it guys.
(1)-(2) The Ballroom Thieves (unknown/website).