Oh Susanna!

This summer we made plans to join our friends Lisa and Doug for a night at the Rochester Jazz Fest, and after some discussion decided to meet at the show of an act called Susanna and the Magical Orchestra.  None of us knew anything about them – what type of music they played, what their vibe was, how many members there were in the Magical Orchestra – but we figured that it seemed as good a place as any to start out the night.

They were performing in a church that was often a site for concerts.  The acoustics were good and the sightlines excellent.  When we got there it was standing room only, with most people at the back sitting on the floor or in the aisles.  As we sat in a pew near the back, our friends Mark and Anne walked in and they joined us.  They too didn’t really know much about the band but had come to see what they were about.

The setup on stage was a couple of keyboards and synthesizers, along with a computer, on the left with three different microphones.  But as the band came onstage, we realized that it was just a duo – Susanna, of course, and Morten, who was in charge of pretty much all the sounds other than Susanna’s vocals.  Morten played the keyboards and the synthesizers and was in charge of the programmed music on the computer, and he occasionally joined in backup vocals to Susanna.  Susanna operated the two microphones on the right, one of which was a regular mic, but the other of which her vocals into something more electronic and less – for lack of a better term – human.

I use that term consciously because Susanna, it turns out, has a beautiful voice, a haunting voice, and the band’s arrangements highlight her broad vocal range and her rather strange and occasionally off-putting phrasing.  The band plays some originals, which sound like the output of an 80s-era Euro-style synthesizer band, like a cross between early Depeche Mode and a-ha.  They’re kind of New Wave and kind of not, kind of dance songs, but only in the same way that “Stairway to Heaven,” “Layla,” and “Freebird” were dance songs played at the end of junior high dances.  (You never could tell just what to do while dancing to these songs, hold the girl close or groove awkwardly waiting for the guitar to kick in and the song to really come to life.)  Their songs switch suddenly from a slow tempo to something much more strikingly upbeat and the shifts seem to come without warning or logic.  With Susanna’s voice a distinctive note above the music, the songs somehow all evoke the sound of Kate Bush, Bjork, and Sinead O’Connor – all at once.

And, of course, I mean that in a good way.  They’re totally odd and they’re great.

And yet they are nothing like the covers that the band plays, which are beyond my descriptive capabilities.  Here’s their version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah:”

It’s pretty great, but it’s also representative of their approach to covers, almost all of which are classics of rock or country.  They strip down the originals to their core and through her vocal phrasing Susanna reinterprets the lyrics into something personal to her so that it brings out something different in the lyrics, evoking a mood often rather different than that of the original.

Nothing demonstrated this more than what they did in their second song.  We were sitting listening, feeling as if there was something familiar in the song as we heard her sing, “Riding down the highway/going to a show/stop in all the byways/playing rock and roll.”  All of a sudden I recognized the song: “It’s a Long Way to the Top” by AC/DC.  But the hazy, lazy phrasing that Susanna offered and the gentle undertone of the electric organ made it sound like an altogether different song than the one we know from Angus Young and his bandmates.  It was, in a word, wonderful.  Everything about the song – as well as the one that followed, Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right” – was somehow discordant, pushing against expectations and what we had heard before.  It’s music that you have to hear for yourself.  It’s kind of that amazing.

Their look onstage is something I’d describe as Nordic hipster.  Susanna was blond and seemingly tall and thin on stage.  She was an embodiment of Marlowe in Heart of Darkness: a voice more than anything else.  Morten, on the other hand, was geeky and immersed in the experience of making music. .  Lots of the music he was producing was computerized and he was working the keyboard pulling out these preprogrammed sounds, but he was also playing an electric organ and a synthesizer.  As he played, he would bite his lower lip and totally lose himself in his performance.  He would make faces, and move in overstylized ways, and yet there was no irony there but just a fantastic and wonderful earnestness.

Overall it was an absolutely weird, great, stupefying show that came out of nowhere and blew us away – just what you really hope for in a concert.  What ultimately made the night for Joan and me, and maybe for everyone, was what they did with Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”  This video provides the audio version of it:

It is just a really beautiful, moving performance of one of the great all-time songs.  She takes Dolly’s work and makes it her own in a way that is totally singular and believable.

You owe it to yourself to check Susanna and the Magical Orchestra out.  They’re crazy and excellent.  They were the oddest and best and trippiest show we’ve seen in a long, long time.

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