Vagabond Opera brought their eccentric stage show to Ashland last Friday, playing to a packed house at CultureWorks.
The â€œBohemian Cabaretâ€ ensemble played for over two hours, singing in a variety of languages and playing a variety of musical genres.Â The Portland-based group has been to Ashland before, a fact that was evident in the crowdâ€™s enthusiasm and preparedness; many audience members came dressed up for the show, hoping to win the â€œbest-dressed fanâ€ prize given out by the band.
With no opening act, Vagabond Opera took stage a little after nine to a somewhat-sleepy room, but that tone didnâ€™t last long.Â The band soon had people dancing, young and old alike, and many were singing along to their vivid lyrics.
The band played tunes from their most recent album, 2009â€™s â€œThe Zeitgeist Beckons,â€ as well as old favorites, mixing originals with cover songs.Â Â Itâ€™s unlikely that the average listener unfamiliar with their work would recognize any of their covers; theyâ€™re often renditions of old Turkish folk songs and Ukrainian belly-dance ballads.
The Vagabondâ€™s are fronted by Eric Stern on vocals and accordion, Ashia Grzesik on vocals and cello, and Robin Jackson on vocals, tenor saxophone and clarinet.Â All three have strong stage presences, but the audience seemed to be especially drawn in by the vocal and acting talents of Grzesik.
A native of Wroclaw, Poland, Grzesikâ€™s long list of accomplishments include playing with Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas, performing at Seattleâ€™s Vaudeville Moisture Festival and many international dates.Â Two years ago she moved to Portland and fell in with Vagabond Opera, along with many other Portland musicians with whom she plays regularly.
Her performance is enthralling, to say the least.Â She has an impressive soprano voice, and when sheâ€™s not singing sheâ€™s often dancing on stage or in the audience.Â Though Vagabond Opera rarely have a pre-set narrative before they go on, she does play recurring characters, including a riverboat gambling queen and a woman who sings that she simply wishes she â€œhad a beard.â€ (She accomplishes this last feat by getting an on-stage â€œreverse haircutâ€ from the bandâ€™s assistant, Dr. Xander Gerrymander. See pictures.)
Stern and Jackson round out the front of the group, both apparently well practiced in the art of stage bantering, playing off each other and the audience with skill.Â Their back-and-forth is amusing, and is used as a way to push the show forward and transition between songs.
Sternâ€™s accordion playing is impressive, though his operatic tenor is even more amazing.Â Classically trained, he shows off his talents, especially on duets with Grzesik, where both performers shine.
Jackson is an impressive singer as well, taking the lead on many numbers.Â But the best part of his performance is his saxophone and clarinet playing.Â Heâ€™s definitely a skilled musician and makes it look laughingly easy.
The rest of the band includes Jason Flores on basses and the Mexican guitarron, Mark Burdon on drums, and Skip vonKuske on cello.Â All are great musicians and showed their talents during solos throughout the night.
Vagabond Opera put on a great show with wonderful costumes, intricate songs with enticing lyrics, and a unique quality of showmanship that is becoming increasingly rare.