By David Templeton | From the May-June 2020 issue of Strings magazine
Anyone who’s been in an audience when the San Francisco Bay Area band Dirty Cello takes the stage knows that something unique happens whenever cellist Rebecca Roudman and ensemble come face to face with living, breathing (and whooping and shouting) fans. The eclectic rock-blues-jazz group has built a fierce following from those live concerts, and though Dirty Cello has produced one popular live album already, they made the somewhat unconventional choice to record their next live album as a DVD, to even better capture the experience of seeing Roudman and company up close and personal. The DVD, originally planned for a May release, but possibly moving up to give fans something to watch during the coronavirus sheltering period, is titled Rough Around the Edges. It will be available through Dirty Cello’s website. I asked Roudman about the band’s decision to release in DVD format, and special recording considerations that came up during filming.
This is a wild idea, especially since so few people are buying either CDs or DVDs these days. Why did you decide to release your new ‘album’ as a DVD?
It is a crazy idea. But our fans are very hands-on people, and we sell a lot of CDs at our concerts and on our website—I don’t know how long that will last—and for what it’s worth, this was our fans’ idea. Our regulars really enjoy our CDs, but we’ve been asked over and over when we’re going to produce a DVD that replicates the experience of being in a funky little venue when we are performing. So we finally decided to hunker down and just do it. We found a cool little club, invited a small audience (just so we could have some energy to feed off of), brought in a lot of cameras, and did the show. It was loads of fun.
Which “funky little venue” did you record in?
It was the Big Easy in Petaluma, California, a couple of months ago. The Big Easy has a great, underground feel, slightly dangerous and really cool. We definitely wanted it to feel like a music dive, and because of the cameras, we needed it to be flat, with no elevated stage.
It needed to be flat?
Absolutely, and that’s another reason we chose that venue, because its stage area is on the same level as the dance floor and tables where the audience sits. We knew the angles wouldn’t be as good if the cameras were looking up at us. The drawback, sort of, was that we had to tell the audience that the camera people would sometimes block their view, but the audience was just happy to be there, and they totally got it. We invited 30 of our closest fans. It was a really nice vibe in the room. Lots of whooping and hollering. Energy like that makes us play better, and it’s part of why our live shows are so… alive. It makes you happy, and when you’re happy you work harder.
Live albums are notorious for often not sounding as good as a studio recording. How did you handle the audio-recording aspects of this project, in addition to the visual part?
Jason Eckl, our guitarist and also my husband, brought a portable sound system and 14 microphones. He wanted to make sure that we were miked up properly. Normally, in a live concert, I’d have my cello running through a DI, but with this, I also had three microphones on my cello, so the sound would be amazing. We’ve done a lot of live recordings, just for our own use, and we decided we wanted this to sound better than anything we’d ever done. Doing the kind of loud rock-blues-bluegrass stuff we do, we’ve learned a lot about how to make ourselves sound good in lots of different spaces. We are now really good at setting up sound.
How many cameras did you use?
We had two videographers roaming around, and Jason set up, like, eight little GoPros and other cameras all over.
How does recording a live album differ for you, as a performer, from recording in the studio? Do you prepare differently in any way?
In the recording booth, I tend to be a bit more still. I’m not worried about engaging with the audience, so I just concentrate on the sound and my playing. It’s very simple and contemplative. When we’re live, with the cameras and all, there’s a lot more to think about. ‘How do I look? Am I communicating my emotions in a clear way? Am I showing what I’m feeling on my face instead of just through my instrument and my voice? Am I giving the audience a fun show?’ There’s a lot more to balance.
Are you happy with the way the footage turned out?
We’re thrilled! We took a look at the footage recently, and it’s gritty and sloppy… in a good way. The audience is having a great time, so we’re having a great time. Jason is editing it himself, and it’s turning out to be really cool. We may have to do this again in the future.
I understand you have another project being released soon, but not as Dirty Cello.
Right. My Yiddish group has a CD coming out soon. That’s a wild story. We’re called the San Francisco Yiddish Combo. A few years ago, we were going on a tour with this orchestra as Dirty Cello, and then the producers called and said that, because of the places we were playing, the name Dirty sounded inappropriate. And also, we were told we could have no singing, no drums, and no bass. Jason happened to have written a Klezmer concerto, so we decided to change the name to the San Francisco Yiddish Combo, changed the ensemble around a bit, and they went for it. It was born out of necessity, but when we got back, we started getting gigs as that group. So we decided to release our first CD as the Yiddish Combo.
Life is really weird sometimes, isn’t it? Just one surprise after another.