For the uninitiated, Squonk Opera is not just a band but a multi-media event comprised of musicians and performers from the Pittsburgh area under the direction of Jackie Dempsey and Steve O’Hearn. Since the group’s inception in 1992 Squonk Opera has combined music, visual art, and acting to create what they deem ‘a wacky provincial opera company in an attempt to make opera accessible to all people’.
With a name like Squonk Opera I assumed the group was a Genesis inspired neo art/rock band and their name was derived from the legendary Squonk creature of the ‘Trick Of The Tale’ album. What I discovered was a ‘Squonk fest’ is a term used by jazz saxophonists.
Over the years the group has created nine original shows including a musical version of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and performed in over 200 venues in the United States , as well as Belgium , Scotland and South Korea .
Astro-Rama: Live Under The Stars documents the group’s two-night outdoor performance in October of 2008 at Pittsburgh ’s Schenley Plaza .
The show features some of the most adventurous music this side of the Milky Way, and a stage set-up that would make most arena bands envious, complete with massive multiple video screens, 3 stories of scaffolding, a 40’ radio telescope transmitter, cranes, cherry pickers and scissor lifts, and a giant robot - all situated around a UFO crash site.
Squonk Opera is the science project of a twisted genius, a homogenous conglomeration of visual and musical elements spinning madly in a laboratory Centrifuge. A gooey inter-species DNA concoction with equal parts Zappa, Hawkwind, Genesis, Devo, George Clinton’s Parliament, Gong, ‘Lizard’ & ‘Islands’ era King Crimson, Yanni, Van Der Graaf Generator, Alice Cooper, Yo-Yo Man, Monty Python, Ed Wood, and Rocky Horror Picture Show, all fronted by eccentric keyboardist who could easily pass for the neighborhood soccer mom.
The premise of this multi-media sci-fi circus revolves around the recent crash of a UFO, and through some means not clearly defined, the Squonk Astro-Ramanauts - a mercenary band of self-styled Planetary Patriots - have acquired a set of blueprints found within the craft for the construction of a sophisticated 40’ radio telescope transmitter, that when tuned to the galactic frequency B-Flat can communicate with our neighbors in space.
The mission of the crew is to construct the dish then transmit a visual ‘warts and all’ self-portrait of our species, revealing our wonderful contradictions and idiosyncrasies as a dizzying montage of images beamed into space.
But not all goes according to plan as the Super Computer PAL 9000 corrupts the message replacing it with corporate advertising and TV commercials.
If this sounds more like an episode of THE X-FILES than a rock concert you’re not far from the truth … only imagine an episode directed by David Lynch or Tim Burton.
ASTRO-RAMA is the benevolent twin to Jeff Wayne’s WAR OF THE WORLDS concert experience, substituting a message of hope, wonderment, and nitrous oxide in place of death rays and Martian tripods.
Sometimes downright hokey, but always entertaining, Squonk Opera’s ASTRO-RAMA has its collective tongue firmly planted in cheek – think: Pink Floyd with a sense of humor.
While most concert venues frown on the use of cell phones during the course of a concert, Squonk Opera invites the crowd to pull out their cell phones and send text messages via an 800 number. Humorous messages are projected on the screen – then transmitted into space.
Setting aside the surreal visual elements of this intergalactic Barnum and Bailey sideshow for a moment, the musicianship is absolutely astounding. And tracks like The Message, Searching, and Orbiting are downright stunning as stand alone pieces.
The group consists of Jackie Dempsey (keyboards, accordion), Steve O’Hearn (flute, whistles, Sax, & Wind Synth), Kevin Kornicki (acoustic and electric percussion), David Wallace (electric guitar), Ryan McMasters (upright & electric bass), and Autumn Ayres (vocals).
I was thoroughly impressed with percussionist Kevin Kornicki, who proved to be something of a showman as well; stepping out from behind his kit wearing a bizarre over- the-shoulder electronic percussion instrument – a drummer's variation of the Moog Liberation – like some member of ‘Figrin D’An & The Modal Nodes’, the house band in Mos Eisley’s Cantina. (An obscure STAR WARS reference for you sci-fi aficionados)
After a hectic stress filled day I can’t think of a more enjoyable way to decompress than to kick back and invest 62 fun filled minutes watching this thoroughly entertaining concert experience.
Highly Recommended – 10 out of 10.
Reviewed by Joseph Shingler on August 12th, 2009