LIVE: The Portland Cello Project @ the Madison Theater, 10/31/15


Review by Greg Haymes

If someone officially designated October as Alt-Cello Awareness Month, I didn’t get the memo. But I definitely got the music…

The month started off with goth folk-rock cellist Melora Creager leading her band Rasputina in Troy at the Queen’s Ball, the after-party for the Enchated City steam-punk festival. Two weeks later at Club Helsinki in Hudson, Rasputina held a CD release party for their new album, “Unknown.” The following week, cellist-singer-songwriter Ben Sollee teamed up with the cello-led indie Orchestra Mother Falcon for a dazzling collaborative concert at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall.

And on Halloween night, the month of October wrapped up with the biggest cello-bration of them all – the Portland Cello Project in a dizzying concert at Albany’s Madison Theater.

The Oregon-based collective – which can swell to as many as 20 members at their hometown gigs – featured a core touring group of five – count ’em, 5 – cellists at the Madison, which converted one of its movie theaters into a live performance venue a year ago. And if you have an aversion to genre-jumping, well, this wasn’t the place for you.

In a sprawlingly eclectic performance, the cello quintet – Diane Chaplin, Julian Kosanovic, Sage Coy, Kevin Jackson and artistic director Skip VonKuske – spun their way through two smart 50-minute sets of deftly executed arrangements centering on spooky Halloween selections. For example, they opened with a medley of “Tubular Bells” (aka the theme from “The Exorcist”), the theme song from “The X-Files” and David Carpenter’s theme from “Halloween.” And they closed the first set with a collection of “night songs” – a medley of Danny Elfman’s tunes from “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia,” VonKuske’s original “Nightfall” and the boiling cauldron of Mussorgsky’s “Night On Bald Mountain.”

And there was simply no way of knowing what was coming next throughout their two 50-minute sets. You want contemporary dance pop? Well, how about Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance” or Pop Evil’s “Deal with the Devil”? You want jazz? Dig their rendition of the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s classic “Take Five” morphing into Lalo Schifrin’s theme from “Mission Imposssible.” Classical music fans may have enjoyed Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King” or Saint-Saëns’ “Danse Macabre.” The late alt-pop singer-songwriter Elliott Smith was represented by a number of selections – most notably “Tomorrow Tomorrow” and the churning “Needle in the Hay”- from PCP’s latest album to e.s. And metalheads revelled in the show-closing rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and the biggest surprise of the night – a dip into the Pantera songbag. Really? Five cellists playing Pantera? You just gotta love it.

But the truth is that PCP was at their best with the original tunes by stay-at-home cellist Gideon Freudmann, including the second set opener “Robin Hood Changes His Oil” and the haunting “Denmark.” The crazy cover versions night hook in the crowd, but PCP are strong enough to stand on their own original songs.

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