By Niki D’Andrea
Urban Electra turns classic rock songs into rockin’ classical jams.
Play some Skynyrd! Freebird!”
It’s not unusual to hear somebody drunkenly bellow this familiar heckle at a rock ‘n’ roll show, especially toward a band that primarily plays cover songs. It’s less likely to hear it directed at a string quartet – unless that quartet is Valley-based Urban Electra, in which case, “Freebird” is a frequent request. So is the Charlie Daniels Band’s “Devil Went Down to Georgia” and the Johnny Cash classic “Orange Blossom Special.”
Unlike a traditional string quartet, which consists of two violinists, a viola player and a cellist performing mostly Baroque and Classical music, Urban Electra turn their strings onto classic rock and contemporary alternative rock songs. “We play cover tunes by artists that the average American knows – Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, or something more modern like Muse or U2,” explains Urban Electra violinist Carrie Caruso, who also arranges all the quartet’s covers for strings. “We pick music to hopefully connect with every age group, [and hope] that someone will like at least one song we perform that we’ve arranged.”
Urban Electra plans to play a plethora of crowd-pleasers when they kick off the seasonal Sips and Sounds free concert series at the Shops at Gainey Village the evening of Friday, November 2. Visitors to the village can browse the boutique shops before the event (which runs from 6 to 8 p.m.), and then enjoy free sodas while Urban Electra plays tunes by artists such as the Beatles, the Cranberries, Coldplay and even Eminem. Food will be available for purchase from several of the village’s restaurants, including Drexyl, Urban Kitchen, Soi 4 Bangkok Eatery, Pomo Pizza Napoletana, Hash Kitchen and The Living Room.
“I think people love entertainment, especially if it’s free, and if there’s something else there, like a wine tasting or some shopping,” says Caruso, who played with Urban Electra at Gainey Village last year but will be performing at the Sips and Sounds series for the first time.
Growing up in Detroit around a musically inclined family, Caruso began playing instruments at a very young age, first tinkering by ear on the “beat up” family piano in the dining room and eventually starting violin lessons in school when she was 10. A couple of years later, she began taking private violin lessons, and in 1994, she moved to Arizona, where she began performing freelance gigs and studied under the late Dr. Frank Spinosa at ASU.
Formal classical music training can be an intense experience requiring endless hours of listening and analysis, and it was such saturation, Caruso says, that attracted her to rock ’n’ roll, R&B and other modern music styles. “You’re really immersed in classical music literature, especially when you’re attending a school of music. You have to listen to classical music, you’re analyzing cassical music, and if I never hear… another Beethoven piano sonata, that would be just fine with me,” she says with a laugh.
Her siblings also held some sonic sway. “I’m the youngest of five children, and my oldest brothers are 11 and 12 years older than me,” Caruso says. “Growing up in the ‘70s, that was a major influence, because I always heard the classic rock. I just really enjoyed that era – the ‘60s and ‘70s in rock ’n’ roll – and surprisingly, it translates very well for a string quartet.”
But rearranging classic and modern rock, pop and hip-hop songs for classical instruments isn’t as straightforward as plugging into an amplifier and reading sheet music. Caruso typically takes the bass guitar in a song and turns it into cello parts, translates rhythm guitar, keyboard or piano parts into viola or second violin and rewrites lead vocals or primary melody for first violin.
“To really give it a nice original twist – and interest for the audience so they don’t really know who’s going to be playing what – I like to give a solo or a verse or a chorus or feature all the members in each of our shows, so each member is just as important as the first violin,” Caruso says, adding, “So the bass player – or the cello player, in this case – doesn’t get too bored just playing a bunch of ‘footballs,’ as we call them, whole notes or quarter-notes or just a regular, driving bass rhythm, which is fairly simple in rock and roll, but R&B and hip-hop tunes get a little more interesting for the bass line.”
Caruso’s Urban Electra bandmates – violinist Ikuko Kanda, cellist Melanie Yarger and viola player Verrona Grandil – are also classically trained players who bring a sleek edge to their craft, capable of rendering the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” into a suspenseful, foot-stomping string jam and morphing Muse’s “Uprising” into a symphonic gallop. One of Caruso’s favorite songs she’s arranged and enjoys performing is Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters.”
“That’s kind of a dark piece, but it’s very emotional in the way the arrangement keeps true to the original form of Metallica’s piece, being instrumental,” she says. “It’s been very fun to really create some dissonance and resolutions, to really keep that emotion.”
Fans will be pleased to know Caruso has arranged “Orange Blossom Special” (“with a twist of ‘Crazy Train’ by Ozzy Osbourne,” she says) as well as “Devil Went Down to Georgia” for performances this season. She hopes to debut them in the spring.
“Freebird” is still not in their repertoire.