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Review: ‘When We Were Young’ with Magik Magik Orchestra and kids-in-tow

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"When We Were Young" with Magik* Magik Orchestra and guests at The Fox Theatre, Oakland

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Sometimes you just have to put your money where your mouth is – so I stumped up the cash and bought tickets for my kids to see “When We Were Young” a great mash-up of indie musicians playing their electric rock and drums alongside their classical cousins – violins, trumpets and the double bass.

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“When We Were Young” was also a gala fundraiser to raise money for Magik-For-Kids, the latest initiative by the five-year-old orchestra led by its maestro, Minna Choi. Presented by Noise Pop and Another Planet Entertaiment, the celebratory concert was held last Friday, Jan 31 at the Fox Theatre, Oakland and helped raise the profile of the local orchestra-for-hire and Magik-For-Kids.

As the bill was filled with a variety of acts held together by the fact that they had all at some point worked with Magik, I was surprise to find no program for the night. In keeping with the theme of the evening, each of the acts featured sang a combination of their own songs and one nostalgic tune from their childhood.

Here again a program would have been helpful to shed some light as to why a particular song was picked and its significance in the artist's childhood. To be fair, some acts did make an attempt to shed some light on their choices which made those moments more poignant.

Taking a 10 and 6 year old to see any concert that begins half-an-hour before their usual bedtime can be tricky but I was fairly confident that the music would awaken their sleepy senses, in more ways than just the obvious.

The fact that 30 other 10-11 year olds from the Pacific BoyChoir were going to stay on stage for the three acts also gave me hope. But as conductor Minna Choi said: “These are the most disciplined and well-behaved children - no, performers on the planet.”

Still the night, an ambitious feat on the part of Choi and the Magik* Magik Orchestra must have been a success. The audience seemed to enjoy the music tremendously and were very generous to the performers with whistles and cat calls that would not have been out of place at a rock concert. I don’t recall hearing anyone stand up, and say “bravo” which I would expect from a classical concert.

The night began suitably with Tears For Fears’ “Mad World” which was recently given an orchestral makeover by Gary Jules winning a new generation of fans. Cellist, Zoe Keating was center stage for this but my boys weren’t too excited until The Dodos came on and Meric Long picked up the electric guitar.

That said even as Long sounded good, as a whole at times the choir with the orchestra sounded like a morass without clear distinction. It is when Long sings “God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys, that the orchestra and choir really came into its own achieving the right emotional highs in between Long’s lone, pared down vocals.

John Vanderslice was up next, and he lightened the proceedings with an affable energy befitting a master-of-ceremonies of sorts, though at one point later in the evening, Choi calls out for him only to get no Vanderslice in sight. He later jokes that he was lost in the bar downstairs and sweetly apologizes.

Vanderslice does a combination of his tunes “Convicts Lake” and “Mulholland Drive” before ending the first act with the luscious slowburn of “America” by Simon & Garfunkel.

After a short break, Tom Krell, who performs under the name How To Dress Well and possesses a Jackson-style falsetto did “Cold Nights” and “Suicide Dream 1”. He gives the backstory to the second song explaining how he had gone to Choi to make a record for a friend who had passed, and wanted to do it in a style that his friend’s mother would approve. His set ends with “Again” by Janet Jackson a perfectly acceptable rendition but makes a moot point of why sometimes artists should do more than just covers.

In the second act, San Francisco-based three-piece Geographer stood out changing up the indie-tronic arrangement of “Verona” to best highlight the classical elements but taking nothing away from their original. Frontman, Michael Deni said: “As I get older, I find myself listening more to my parents’ records and less of Oasis. More Crosby, Stills and Nash.” He than sang a crowd-pleasing rendition of Neil Young’s “Helpless”. This is a band that I would love to see more of and the last real band that my kids are awake for.

When Diana Gameros comes on to sing in her Mexican native, their eyes get heavy and they slump into their seats falling asleep on me, as Gameros’ velvety vocals lulls them. She tells of wanting to listen to Ace of Spades as a kid but as an adult singing in the traditional Mexican style.

Rogue Wave then followed swiftly and brought the long second act to a close with “Everyday” by Buddy Holly. Zack Rogue admitted: “My grandfather at age 92, decided to get remarried in a nursing home and I got to perform this song.” It is an inspired arrangement of a rather sweet and straightforward song that is elevated with dramatic strings. When the guitar riffs lead into grand orchestral crescendos that are hushed on by Rogue’s vocals, the music is so stirring that you know why you came out to see a gig like this.

However, even without children, the 3hr show with late starts and breaks in between seemed long with sets that seem to drag at times. Perhaps a two-act set with less bands and songs that really work the pace of rock and classical to their strongest suits may be attempted next time.

Sadly we exit with two rather sleepy boys just after 10.30pm and I am bummed to miss Nicki Bluhm and the Two Gallants. Already my kids have made a rudimentary distinction between classical and rock and they definitely prefer the latter. But over the next few days, I catch them both going to the piano keyboard, the drum kit and picking up the bass guitar or acoustic a little more than usual.

My elder also spent much of the weekend wanting to blow his trumpet – not the easiest instrument to listen to in close confines, but I guess we all have to suffer for art one way or another, on this lifelong quest to learning and appreciating all shades of music. And at least we started them on it when they were young.

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