What do Muse, The Neighborhood, Adele, Coldplay and The Beatles all have in common? At first glance, not much — these bands span musical genres and decades. Yet the Vitamin String Quartet succeeded in melding the music of these five bands in its concert at The Troubadour on Wednesday.
The Los Angeles-based group has put its signature spin on countless songs since its debut in 1999. The Vitamin String Quartet has released more than 280 tribute albums, including quirky wedding compilation albums and annual covers of the year’s greatest hits. Despite its incredible pace of album releases, VSQ has shown that it produces quality arrangements. The group’s 2002 album Exit … Stage Right: String Quartet Tribute to Rush received a Grammy nomination. In addition, the quartet included original songs on its 2009 album, Vitamin String Quartet: Per_Versions.
VSQ has a devoted following and growing audience. Radio station WWHK in Concord, N.H. played their music 24 hours a day during the spring and summer of 2012. Instead of playing live concerts, the band prefers to perform behind the scenes. VSQ contributed to Danny Elfman’s reprisal of the Nightmare Before Christmas score in 2008. The band’s songs have also been used in television, on So You Think You Can Dance, Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl and others. In 2011, the band was featured on MTV Unplugged, playing “Kings and Queens” in tribute to 30 Seconds to Mars.
The Vitamin String Quartet has proven itself to be as adaptable as it is innovative. One of the band’s greatest strengths is its ability to capture the essence of songs. VSQ’s arrangements are not simple distillations of other band’s songs; they deserve to be enjoyed in their own right. The musicians shape the pre-existing music into something wholly recognizable yet entirely fresh. They refocus the song, substituting melody and harmony for lyrics, and using strings to mimic other instruments and the result is sublime.
The concert opened with a single eerie spotlight on an empty stage. One by one, the members of Vitamin String Quartet filled the stage. As the name implies, VSQ is a string quartet in the classical sense, consisting of two violins, one viola and one cello. These musicians, however, do not adhere to stodgy classical principals.
VSQ opened with one of its most popular songs, “Clocks,” from the String Quartet Tribute to Coldplay album. This rhythmic rendition featured pizzicato, or string plucking, which sounds similar to ticking clocks. Even though traditional orchestras incorporate pizzicato, Vitamin String Quartet combines it with other orchestral techniques to produce unexpected sounds. The musicians strum, slide and slap their instruments, and also incorporate claps, snaps and stomps. This break from tradition added to the relaxed atmosphere at The Troubadour. The musicians played with unity — drawing from one another’s energy and musical cues as well as responding to audience requests and cheers.
Though Vitamin String Quartet did not formally announce all of its songs, it was not difficult to recognize popular tunes, such as “Hallelujah” by Paramore and “Dream On” by Aerosmith. This informal aspect could be seen as an annoyance to people who are unfamiliar with the string quartet but the audience seemed to consist of fervent VSQ fans, so this was not an issue. In the future, however, it could be helpful for the band to post or announce a setlist so that audience members can follow along more easily.
VSQ maintained a casual atmosphere; the musicians moved to the music and encouraged the audience to sway and clap along. The strings provided a colorful soundscape that made lyrics unnecessary. Only after repeated prompting did concert-goers sing along to VSQ’s cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” This song was one of the most dynamic of the night and used strobe lights to emphasize abrupt changes in mood. “Bohemian Rhapsody” also featured an extended viola solo and sweeping violin scales.
Another standout was “Sweater Weather” from VSQ Performs the Hits of 2013 Vol. 1. This laid-back tune incorporated a bubbly sounding pizzicato section and enchanting harmonies. VSQ’s reinvention of The Neighborhood’s popular song made listeners consider the melodic undercurrent of this tune and appreciate the versatility of the original. “Sweater Weather” proved to be one of the night’s most well-received songs, and when the audience demanded an encore, VSQ gave a second performance.
The show highlighted the band’s versatility; they deftly switched from a sultry rendition of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” to the more introspective “Across the Universe” by The Beatles. This concert was a stellar introduction, or re-introduction, to the Vitamin String Quartet’s unique flair and leaves listeners eagerly anticipating the quartet’s next album.