Getting Gritty with Dirty Cello
By Lou Fancher
On YouTube, you can view not one, but three side-by-side-by-side Rebecca Roudmans simultaneously rocking through Purple Haze on three cellos — a 1909 French classic, a gray carbon-fiber model made by Luis and Clark, and an electric cello that resembles a funky hardwood board shaped like a smoothly beveled hourglass. Behind the scenes but no less expectation-shredding are guitarist Jason Eckl, Roudman’s husband, and Anthony Petrocchi, providing solid drums.
Allow YouTube to preselect the next video for you and suddenly, a single Roudman is barefoot, toes buried in leaves and surrounded by towering redwood trees at White’s Hill Nature Preserve in Fairfax, California. Seated nearby is Eckl, this time playing a hand drum. Didgeridoo artist Paradiso completes the trio as they improvise; bobbing gracefully as if blown by a breeze while weaving a magic sonic web with his long-stemmed Australian wind instrument.
Roudman, founder and leader of the blues, folk, and bluegrass Dirty Cello band, who can’t resist veering into Bach cello suites or rock-and-roll classics if requested by someone in an audience, is a member of the Oakland Symphony and the Santa Rosa Symphony.
Despite a fan base and record sales that mean Roudman could ditch her orchestra gigs and depend entirely on Dirty Cello for a livable income, she doesn’t — nor will she ever — abandon her classical musical roots. “I still dig classical music and hanging out with the orchestra. I don’t want to get rid of that,” she says in a phone interview.
But two minutes later, Roudman is talking about “getting weird” and pushing boundaries with her cello-led band. “A blues band usually has a guitar lead, not a cello. You think Dirty Cello would be a novelty act, but our fan base has built. When I started improvising, I thought people would hate it, but they liked it because it was half-accessible, the cello playing pretty music, but also weird.”
And when Roudman began singing because they were getting a lot of bookings and couldn’t afford to pay guest singers, even she freaked out. “I hadn’t really worked on my voice: I was a cellist. I worked on it and it got easier. Now, it feels like a natural piece of it.”
Audience response to the band’s unconventional approach during tours to China and Italy and a first-time visit to Florida show acceptance is increasing worldwide, according to Roudman. Except, perhaps in one upcoming instance in Austria and Vienna. Invited to perform Eckl’s Blues Cello Concerto with the Santa Rosa Symphony Youth Orchestra during their European tour this summer, Roudman says the presenters balked. “The thought of me singing amplified made them say ‘No, you can’t play that.’” Another concerto — all acoustic — was accepted as an alternative. “Collaborations are a way for us to experience music that’s different than we normally would. But it’s also scary,” she says. “You never know where they will go or end.”
Roudman’s carbon-fiber cello is acoustic but amplified. She favors it on tour and overall because she can play it standing up using a custom stand that, she says, “would crack and split my wooden cello.” And on airline trips, it can be checked as baggage for $50.
Roudman says the pickup amplification means she can play faster and quieter without worry that the sound will not fill a large concert hall. “With my French cello, I have to work hard to get good sound. I have to baby certain notes.” The electric cello, she says is like an old Cadillac car. “It looks cool, but it’s really hard to operate. The fingerboard isn’t standard size so I have to make my hands go higher than normal. It’s funny: I got it when I was 18, used if for five years and ditched it. It works great on YouTube videos and that’s about it.”
Dirty Cello appears May 19 in a shared show with jazz vocalist Lisa Lindsley and pianist Mike Greensill at the Piedmont Center for the Arts. With roughly 40 memorized songs, the band’s classically-trained musicians and backup singers perform without a formal set list. Because of the classical and contemporary music training they have in common, they sometimes perform music they’ve played separately but have never rehearsed together prior to the show. “We like to start with a blues tune like ‘Crossroads,’ because it’s a virtuoso blues piece. Then after we open with that, Jason acts as emcee and he might pick a bluegrass tune, then an Eastern European piece, and sometimes a classical piece. Often someone will yell out, ‘Bach suite,’ right after we do a Led Zeppelin. It’s definitely different and fun for us because we never know what the audience will want.”
Roudman says Lindsley’s set will occupy the first half of the show, Dirty Cello the second. But then, the same urge that has her getting into high thumb position and “getting gritty, really stripping the sound” on a fingerboard takes over. “Are we going to do any songs together? Ooh, I hadn’t thought of that, but now that I’m asked, yeah, that might be great.”