Part of Savannah’s lore is built from truth. This small port city is filled with weird characters, rich history and inexplicable happenings, and the rest is built on exaggerations.
Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story, is what they say. Don’t let violence and poverty taint the beauty of 100-year-old live oaks and blooming magnolias in the catalogs sent to potential tourists. Visitors! Oh, sorry, visitors is what we’re supposed to call tourists now. My bad. (Thanks for visiting though. Much love to our visitors. We love visitors. Come visit.)
Musically, this city has a rich, diverse history that nearly resembles cities three times our size. Legendary songwriters grace the historic halls, the origins of jazz can be traced back to early Savannah, some of our most popular exports are genre-defining metal bands, and punk has had a firm grip on the underground scene since the 1980s. Hip-hop is no joke in Savannah, but is often overlooked.
This year, a gypsy jazz band is king of the mountain.
Velvet Caravan is probably the only local act that can draw festival-size numbers to the Lucas Theatre, which is what they did on Sept. 14.
They are also the only Savannah band to have played the Savannah Stopover Music Festival, Revival Fest, Savannah Music Festival, SCAD Savannah Film Festival, Shalom Y’all Jewish Food Festival and with the Savannah Philharmonic.
Velvet Caravan’s appeal is cross-generational and diverse, clearly. While gypsy jazz is not breaking the Top 40, they’ve cultivated a following because they put on an exceptional live show every single time, dotted with an equal and satisfying dose of musical talent and humor.
Even if gypsy music or jazz is not on your regular rotation, Velvet Caravan’s approach to and virtuosic display of the music is unprecedented. They present the dated music with an educational aspect, expanding the experience and opening a door for the uninitiated. They also have a lot of fun doing what they do, which makes all the difference in a live setting.
If you like hip-hop, there are gypsy tunes that have most certainly been sampled by s. If you like rock ’n’ roll, jazz gave it beats you’ll recognize. Similar to classical music, the gypsy music of past plays as a historic narrative to the music of now.
It’s also just fun to hear when executed well, it's danceable and most often, simply beautiful.
Velvet Caravan bandleader and violinist Ricardo Ochoa is a master at selling the music. On his WRUU show, he shares the sentiment of gypsy music through a rigorous examination of its history. For the special one-off concert on Sept. 14, Ochoa framed the concert like his radio show.
Velvet Caravan nearly packed the theater. Thankfully, Hurricane Florence was gracious enough to stay north, which helped, I am sure. (Kind regards to my family in North Carolina.)
Official ticket sales were in the 600 range, but it felt like more in the 1,200 capacity movie palace. The only Savannah band I’ve seen get those kind of numbers recently were The Train Wrecks during a benefit show earlier this year, where they and several other musical guests covered Tom Petty's songs.
For a Savannah band to fill the Lucas for their original music is impressive and a rarity in this city. But Velvet Caravan is widely loved for a number of reasons, so it’s not particularly shocking.
Atlanta’s Mercury Orkestar opened the night. A Balkan brass “party” band, they followed Ochoa’s design in presenting the music with an educational sidebar. From the Balkan region, they made sure to note what country each song originated from, which made the music, at least for me, far more interesting to listen to.
Although a vain note, I do wish they had not dressed like they walked out of a 1990s college rock radio station. The Lucas is a classy place. The stage was dressed for the night with strings of cafe lights, a caravan mock-up and a gentle wash of blue lights; the perfect combination of elegance and casual formality. Velvet Caravan dressed to the occasion with three-piece suits, fancy hats and velvet jackets. They fit the set and completed the full sensory experience. Pageantry and showmanship matter. It’s part of what makes a live show entertaining and shouldn’t be an afterthought. Prince would have agreed with me.
Velvet Caravan’s new drummer, Vuk Pavlovic — an exceptional musician, Prince lover and blouse-wearing cowboy — could most certainly give the Orkestar some pointers.
Velvet Caravan’s set played like a narrative retelling of gypsy music. A designed journey, they begin with a stripped-down gypsy set with Ochoa, the amazing Jared Hall (keys, accordion), the talented Eric Dunn (bass) and the incredible Jimmy Grant (guitar). It was probably the highlight of the night for me, as they presented gorgeous songs from an array of countries with exceptional showmanship and exquisite execution.
There aren’t many bands that can evolve a set from a 200-year-old song to “Stayin' Alive” and make both bookends equally interesting and entertaining like Velvet Caravan can.
The stripped-down gypsy set was like a gateway drug for the rest of the night as they shifted into more modern arrangements and jazz-laced tunes, with Grant taking Django-inspired leads that were mesmerizing, playing perfect counter to Ochoa’s impeccable solos.
The sound (an important note) was also above par. As an aside: quality sound — meaning a good system with an engineer who knows how to live mix — should also not be an afterthought when staging live music. Fortunately, Savannah Stopover was a sponsor of this show and CEO/founder Kayne Lanahan ensures the shows they put on always sound good. Three cheers for Kayne! Someone buy her a beer.
After adding Pavlovic to the set, with his shiny black suit and dashing hat, we rolled into modern territory. They were joined shortly after by singer Annie Sellick for the next stage of tunes.
The future for Velvet Caravan, according to Hall and Ochoa, will consist of more collaborations like the one with Sellick. And really, having seen their master design play out in real time, I think they’re on to something. While the band as an instrumental outfit can deliver a full set that is satisfying and entertaining, adding vocalists and guest musicians to the lineup and pushing the band to the background showcases their range of talent in an unpretentious manner.
Sellick opened with a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me To The End of Love,” which has a gypsy music foundation already in place, so it made for the perfect modern crossover song and next step in the night’s expedition. Well done.
I almost hate to say this, because I know how much time and effort they put into it, but the cover of the Doobie Brothers' “Black Water” fell flat for me. Perhaps it’s that I never liked that song in the first place. I am sure people there enjoyed Velvet Caravan’s version. I think I got lost in the time signature change, and the arrangement felt heavy-handed overall. But I will give five cheers for boldness.
What kind of gypsy band covers The Doobie Brothers? Yeah, that’s kind of punk, really. Do you, cool guys.
Simply resolved, this was a fun night of great live music. Savannah is a weird little town and Velvet Caravan makes us all love it a little more, I think, despite its flaws.