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Cirque du Freak

Samvega unleash a frenzy of funhouse sounds

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GRAND EXPERIMENT Samvega take genre down the rabbit hole.
  • GRAND EXPERIMENT Samvega take genre down the rabbit hole.

"Step right up! Step right up!" shouts Samvega's Melissa Baker in the style of a carnival barker. This cues a string of spoken word surrounded by music that might feel at home in the weirdest Les Claypool–inspired hard-funk jams. But what exactly is this sound?

If the band's own members each have a different answer for the type of music they play, it's a safe bet that whatever genre it is, it's interesting. Such is the case with Samvega, whose five members describe their music at once as experimental, psychedelic, "not just a jam band," and heavy, Gypsy-esque rock. Perhaps the most accurate is a combination of all of the above with the overriding theme of "dark circus."

No matter the moniker, the music certainly is different, and the players dedicated. The five-piece group return home Oct. 19 to play at Hopmonk after a month-long tour—the band's sixth since 2006—that took them to the Experi-MENTAL Festival in Brooklyn.

Drummer Pat Feistal understands the challenges of growing a fanbase with somewhat genreless music. "We don't get offended if it's our first time playing at a place and people don't applaud," he explains. But more often than not, the audience stays, Feistal adds, unsure whether they're witnessing the devil unleashing a chaotic apocalyptic scheme or angels miraculously healing the sick and feeding the poor.

The band members live on a bohemian art compound in St. Helena, where they occasionally host concerts and fashion shows. Two of the members, Melissa and Mercedes Baker, are sisters and painters, who take advantage of their large art studio to paint large canvases and create sculptures of things like lifesize plaster cows.

Listening to a rehearsal mere hours before the group leaves for New York, I feel like a Himalayan mountain explorer, with Samvega as my sherpa, scaling to previously unreachable heights. It's like going through a blinding blizzard, with sheer climbs and bone-piercing cold—a terrifying journey if not for the wise and calming effect of my sherpa.

In the midst of the whirlwind, some songs are just evil fun, like a sideshow of lovable freaks playing pranks on unsuspecting cubicle jockeys or a burlesque-style version of a clown performance while the ringmaster cracks a whip menacingly, only to be doused with a fire hose from behind while the clowns tell him to "cool off." Yeah, it's hard to describe.

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