Are the Red Room Orchestra the world’s most distinctive noir cinematic band? Considering that they specialize in Twin Peaks themes, if they’re not, there would be something wrong. Last night at what appeared to be a sold-out New York debut at Symphony Space, they went deep into Angelo Badalamenti’s iconic David Lynch tv and film music to conjure up a relentlessly bittersweet, menacing “purgatory,” as bandleader Marc Capelle put it.
But they didn’t just do meticulously arranged, spot-on recreations from the original scores. There were lots of surprises. Who knew that violist Dina Maccabee could do such a perfect Julee Cruise imitation? Or that original cast member James Marshall, singing and wielding his Strat, had the chops to play Hendrix? Or that Capelle, who spent most of the set at the piano, would turn in one of the night’s most gorgeously bittersweet solos, playing muted trumpet on the title theme from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me?
He and the group have spared no detail to appeal to a rabid fan base who totally geek out on this stuff, not limiting themselves to coy little flourishes on intros and outros. The original Twin Peaks tv themes were the most luridly luscious numbers on the bill, although here they had more of an organic feel than Badalamenti’s original score. Those recordings balance blue-neon tremolo guitar against icy string synth: although these versions had plenty of swirling keyboard orchestration, courtesy of Capelle, Yuka C. Honda and vibraphonist Toby Dammit, who also doubled on keys, the music was warmer and more intimate, amplified by Capelle’s grand piano, Maccabee’s viola and Scott Larson’s looming trombone.
They opened with the tv show’s title theme, bassist Eli Crews and baritone guitarist Tom Ayres doubling their lines on the low end. From there, they slunk and fingersnapped their way through the stripper theme that eventually became would-be femme fatale Audrey Horne’s dance. And they took their time reaching from nostalgic, melancholy Americana to foreboding grey-sky sonics as they worked sweeping, majestic, ineluctably gloomy permutations on dead girl Laura Palmer’s themes.
There were some funny bits too. When guitarist Allyson Baker wasn’t absolutely nailing all those deliciously terse, resonantly tremoloing riffs, she evoked Chuck Berry on acid during a surprisingly un-cheeseball reinvention of Bill Doggett’s silly 50s instrumental Honky Tonk. Singer Karina Denike reached for the rafters with an aching wail in dynamic takes of the expected Orbison hits Lynch has used to drive home big dramatic moments, from Blue Velvet through the Twin Peaks franchises. And Margaret Cho joined with Marshall and Beth Lisick for a couple of over-the-top bits from the drama within the drama, the make-believe soap opera Invitation to Love.
Multi-reedman Ben Goldberg added liquid crystal clarinet as well as gritty low end on contrabass clarinet, notably during the Audrey Horne sequences. Drummer Robin MacMillan provided a nimble, frequently muted swing, often using his mallets. At the end, Marshall plugged in again and blazed through a dirty, noisy take of Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile: Slight Return. It was appropriate because of the Pacific Northwest connection, Capelle explained.
Denike is at Pete’s this Sunday, Feb 17 at 8:30; the Red Room Orchestra are playing a completely different program of material from Wes Anderson movies tonight, Feb 16 at 8 again at Symphony Space; you can get in for $30.