Above & Beyond Acoustic puts emotive spin on instrumentation
“We had these dates reserved for electronic shows.” At 10 p.m. on Saturday night, the Los Angeles crowd was ecstatic that the speaker of those words had left his CDJs at home. Standing on a stage amongst violins, guitars, drums, vocalists, spotlights and sport coats, Above & Beyond’s Tony McGuinness took his turn to command the mic during a break between tracks. Paavo and Jono would also take their turns that night, as, unlike a DJ set, tuning and tweaking replaced seamless transitions. Also unlike a DJ set, the crowd the producers addressed was sitting before them respectably dressed and orderly – at least, most of them.
The first day of Above & Beyond’s two night unplugged touchdown kicked off to a surprisingly boisterous start, with the crisp open-air Greek Theater taking on the feel of a sports arena instead of an orchestra pit. As the line of latecomer cars continued to snake up Vermont Avenue, those already in their seats began to brim with anticipation, whooping and screaming “I love you Paavo!” or “Marry me Tony!” as the semi-curtained stage began to bustle in the intermission after RY-X’s set. By the time the full ensemble was revealed at 9:10, the diverse crowd and their uniform cellphones were ready.
Or maybe they weren’t. Armed only with a minute snippet of the acoustic version of “Love Is Not Enough” and perhaps a cellphone video or two from the four original UK stops, it was difficult to truly prepare for the experience of 15 skilled musicians rendering Above & Beyond classics in an actually classical way, and though the instrumental “Small Moments” proved a fitting starting point, not even the slow motion confetti shower that accompanied OceanLab’s preceding “Miracle” could encapsulate the tone for the evening: ABAcoustic was a drink to be sipped and savored before one could appreciate its full body and undertones. Luckily, there were 16 opportunities to take it all in.
Under an oversized disco ball, a harpist wove her fingers while a side-facing trumpet player held his posture and vocalist Annie Drury joined the piano-playing Paavo, the vibraphone-clanging Jono and the guitar-strumming Tony while a string quartet hummed and producer Bob Bradley held down percussion. That is, until the A&B trio switched instruments or vocalists Zoe Johnston or Alex Vargas took the mic. With a mandolin, Rhodes piano, cello, ukelele and other instruments also in use and a local string section combined with eleven of the original musicians, the set list was truly performed as (almost) never heard before.
Though hits from all three of the group’s studio albums and two upcoming singles from their impending fourth were played throughout the night, in many cases it was not until the vocal hit that the crowd recognized the track. Rearranged for the performance, the songs weren’t simply instrumental replications of synthetic tones but completely new acoustic landscapes that kept vocals, key, and tempo but reimagined most of the rest: The result was a harmonized, jam session-laced, jazzed up and mellowed out mingling of sounds that reverberated beneath the stars.
While describing each deliciously held note or gorgeous glide of a bow would be an indulgent reminiscence, it is one that we will leave to the notes themselves when they are released on the trio’s forthcoming acoustic album. What we can’t leave out is the group singalong session that was “Sun & Moon,” the surprise combination of “Satellite” and “Stealing Time,” the way Tony handled the vocals for “Back Room Boy” before Alex took over the chorus, or the refusal to leave after a standing ovation-causing fake finale and the encore’s proclamation that “this really is our last number” (Skrillex’s surprise performance took place the following evening).
For those in attendance, Above & Beyond Acoustic was a once-in-a-lifetime musical and emotional experience that can be summed up by the group hugs and tears occurring both on stage and off. For those not in attendance, there will soon be a DVD of the UK rendition. In the interim, we’ve included the full set list for your perusal, and a link to the night’s gallery shot by the ever-talented Rukes. Stay tuned for album and DVD details.
Above & Beyond Acoustic USA 10/12/13 set list:
OceanLab – Miracle
You Got To Go
Thing Called Love
Good For Me
Sun & Moon
No One On Earth
OceanLab – Sirens of the Sea
Love Is Not Enough
Black Room Boy
OceanLab – On A Good Day
Blue Sky Action*