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Calliope Musicals: The Fine Art Of Performance

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Courtsey photo
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Austin's Calliope Musicals has been earning critical praise in recent years. Both NPR and Billboard have praised the band’s high-energy shows, and many have noted that the band’s music walks a fine line between jazz, pop and psychedelia.

But the group hasn’t always sounded that way, nor has it always had such high-energy shows. Band member Craig Finklestein, there from the beginning, remembers those early days.

“We were strictly a folk band at first,” he says. “Over the years, we’ve had some in and out of members and as we’ve progressed, we’ve turned into something a little more psychedelic, a little hard edged and not really folk anymore.”

Formed in 2009, the band was slow to hone its sound and its stage show. But as the music became harder-edged, everyone involved became more committed to making their concerts an unforgettable experience.

“Every song that we’d write, we’d do it with the intent of, ‘Hey, we wanna make people move. We wanna have people be excited to see us.’ The music writing became geared toward that and as that happened all our stage presences kind of skyrocketed. People started noticing. ‘It looks like you’re having a lot of fun on stage.’ And in fact we were,” he says.

Finklestein recalls that as he and his bandmates were developing their stage show, they looked to one veteran band in particular for inspiration.

“A lot of us watched Stop Making Sense by the Talking Heads,” he says. “It’s the quintessential live video for any band to watch because the Talking Heads’ stage presence is just off-the-charts good. They constantly keep people visually engaged, even if there isn’t a light show going on, they’re moving, they’re having fun. That is exactly what we wanted to go for. That was a really important part of the evolution of how that came about for us.”

Though he was initially afraid of being too over the top with his performances, Finklestein quickly learned an important lesson about entertaining.

“If you feel like you’re acting like a fool on stage, that’s probably exactly what people want to see,” he says. “It feels silly and it even feels silly at the time but when you talk to people afterwards and people tell you that they loved your energy and the way everything’s put together on stage, all that foolishness goes away. At first, I had a hard time letting go of my own modesty. ‘I don’t want to look foolish on stage.’ But, actually, people love that, when you let go and people don’t really care what you look or sound like and you just have fun. They just have fun with you. It doesn’t matter anymore.”

In early 2017, the group was named band of the year at the Austin Music Awards, appeared on the cover of the Austin Chronicle and made the list of All Songs Considered's Best of What We Saw, 2017 list for South By Southwest's annual music festival. Finklestein points out that some would shrug such accolades off but says that he and his bandmates feel that, after nearly a decade of hard work, there's no reason not to celebrate.

“Bands like to tell themselves, ‘Oh, this doesn’t matter.’ But when you do get those things, it matters,” he says. “It really, really matters. When we won band of the year this year at South By Southwest at the Austin Music Awards, we just basically got a lot of support from a bunch of fans who wrote in and voted for us. They wanted to see us have that success and that was really important to me, too, that our fans believe in us enough to say, ‘Yes, this is the best band in Austin.’ In a town where there’s so much good music, to be at the top of that is just incredible.”

Calliope Musicals performs at Barleycorn's on Thursday evening.

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Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.