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The Wayback Machine

SROs Halloween show melds musical past and present


From their perches atop the stage, musicians see a lot of weird stuff, but said weirdness seldom consists of a woman in a poodle skirt, a zoot-suited gent, a hippie, a yuppie, a mummy, a few zombies, and Dracula and his son staging a conga line while shouting call-and-response vocal cues to a Green Day song re-written as a sizzling foxtrot.

But that's just the kind of sight the members of Portland-based Soundstage Rhythm Orchestra (SRO) are anticipating for the group's second Halloween Dance Party, taking place Oct. 26 at the Walters Center. This is, after all, All Hallow's, the time where ghouls and ghosts get together to terrorize, as Vincent Price famously put it in Michael Jackson's "Thriller," "whoever shall be found without the soul for getting down."

Realistically speaking, it might be odd to find an SRO crowd not clad in decades-spanning garb, monsters or no. SRO, in a few short years, has swelled into a 24 member powerhouse specializing in taking a musical odyssey through 100 years of American music, from Big Band classics all the way up to Lady Ga Ga. The thing linking it all together is the spirit of finding fun in music and, of course, inspiring souls to get down. As such, the band's created a musical Wayback Machine bridging the gap between 100 years of American music.

"We wanted to play Michael Jackson and Green Day and Lady Gaga, but at the same time go back to Duke Ellington and (Henry) Mancini and The Beatles," says co-founder, artistic director and cellist Michael Shaw, who conceived the group after a lifetime of classical musicianship and ballroom dancing. "We're probably the only group that plays chart toppers from the 1920s and every single decade all the way up to 2012. Every single piece is representive of a different decade, a different style: different textures and rhythms. We do easy listening, jazz, rock, blues, you name it. And every single piece is going to be unique unto itself."

Familiar ear

At an SRO show, it's almost a given that audience members will recognize most songs, even if it takes a while to name that tune. Among the group's standards are swing versions of "Gimme Some Lovin" and "Born This Way." The group doesn't hesitate to offer up '80s kitsch classic "Take Me On" as a foxtrot or even to re-imagine classics by The Beatles as big-band opuses. Through the band, jazz, samba, swing, rock, blues, funk, disco and pop all find a common ground that's surprisingly sturdy.

Avoiding contrivance and keeping songs recognizable requires walking a tightrope, but one that Shaw sees as a challenge: After all, anybody could add a little zip to a song, or simply borrow melodic elements and put them to a completely different style. For SRO, every song needs to be recognizable, otherwise the audience becomes lost.

"People who love The Beatles don't want to hear an arrangement that's so weird, obscure and fractured that you can't tell that it's the popular piece that made it so great," says Shaw. "You have to keep it legitimate to the music, but we add the danceability with the correct rhythms and our particular orchestration."

The process of transforming songs into new styles is by no means simple: it often involves transcribing and re-orchestrating the pieces by ear, and can take several weeks to hammer down. But with an arsenal of 52 songs at their disposal, the group has managed to create a huge catalogue that never strays so far from the source that it's inaccessible.

"We're pretty faithful to the original arrangement," says flautist Phyllis Avidan Louke, author of four flute-method books, director of the Rose City Flure Choir, and principal player with the Oregon Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra and the Oregon Symphonic Band. "The people who do the arrangements do such a good job of planning for the group and making sure the sound is balanced into a pleasing sound for the audience."

Cooler than kitsch

Doing such arrangements of classics also presents a trap that many other tribute groups tend to fall trumpet-first into: many times, in an effort to spin classics, the sound comes off as cutesy. Or, even worse: stuffy.

Yet the group has easily avoided those traps due to its members' collective lifetimes of classical musicianship and firm commitment to their craft.

That, and they're all pretty cool… and anyone who doubts it need only listen to the group's groovy version of Booker T's "Green Onions."

"We're hipper than (kitsch). When I play, I try to make it as heartfelt and sincere and awesome as possible. You have to make it real. That's where we all come from," says drummer Jim Pitts, one of the group's original members and a professional percussion teacher. "(Also), a sense of humor is required. It actually makes for a more relaxed and fun atmosphere, making sure that everybody can laugh makes for a real great atmosphere. It's never stuffy."

For the Walters Halloween extravaganza, the group is encouraging a "through the decades" costume theme, though any costume will do. It's a fitting theme for a group that offers a musical time machine of a show, piloting its audience into a realm where all decades and generations are represented and creating an alternate reality where Duke Ellington, John Lennon and Green Day can share a dance floor without raising an eyebrow.

"No matter your background and age, it all falls by the wayside and the baton comes down," says Shaw. "It all comes together in the happiest collision of musical personalities producing the best work we can."

That's something even Dracula's son could sink his teeth into.



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