A song cycle with its head in the stars and a sense of wonder makes space cool again

Arts Review


The Vortex, through Jan. 24

Running time: 1 hr

Remember when space was cool? Back when humankind first dipped its toe in the vast dark cosmic sea? Then, anytime anyone punched through this mud ball's veil of atmosphere, it was news.

We all sat slack-jawed by the radio and television, following these rocket-riding daredevils into the inky infinite. We were so in awe, so dazzled by it, that we exalted it in language, saying that which was most cool "sent us into orbit," was "out of this world." Space was our portal into the future, a new frontier of possibility that inflamed our imaginations, and we dreamed about it, with its robots and ray guns, flying cars and fishbowl helmets, dreams that were fueled by Atom Age Homers whose stories and images let us see ourselves jockeying the stars, striding across the universe.

Space hasn't been cool that way for a long, long time, but the exhilarating tingle of those heady days returns in Spaceman:Dada:Robot, a song cycle with its head in the stars, created by the Electronic Planet Ensemble. The four members of this multidisciplinary band remain earthbound as they perform – they're as stationary as those old NASA techs monitoring a Mercury mission – but in less time than Yuri Gagarin spent on his first spin around the globe, they take us tripping through a dozen galaxies – or perhaps entire universes, since the brief poem-dramas penned and recited by argotnaut David Jewell take place in alternate realities of moonstruck robots and Martians picnicking on Earth and intergalactic whales pursued by a mellow star-faring Ahab. It's not the space we know now but the space we used to know, the space of our dreams.

The concert takes place before a screen on which tech mastermind Sergio R. Samayoa projects images specific to the songs: shots of nebulae and star clusters from the Hubble Space Telescope, trippy abstract footage à la 2001: A Space Odyssey, computer-modeled water droplets and hearts, antique robot toys, and half-century-old 8mm film of flora and vistas in national parks (home movies of a home planet that make the number "Space Hobo" all the more poignant). The visuals are key to transporting us beyond our terrestrial home, but what truly beams us up are the cosmic contributions of the band members. Rachel Fuhrer's explosive drums are the Titan rocket propelling the songs into orbit, where Samayoa's bass work creates an interstellar foundation, deep and steady, like the universal hum left over from the Big Bang, and Chad Salvata's celestial synth echoes the music of the spheres. Then there is the jumpsuit-clad Jewell, looking like Neil Diamond channeling Neil Armstrong, exuding the old-school cool of the coffeehouse bard as he tosses out astronomy-class factoids that blow your mind and sagas of jealous robots and interplanetary wanderers and aliens who are like flawless versions of ourselves. As in vintage sci-fi, Jewell is simultaneously shooting us up to other worlds and bringing us down to Earth, imagining fantastic, futuristic exteriors that excite our minds but that cover the same tender hearts and bruised souls that we've always harbored inside and no doubt always will, no matter what planet we're on.

Its retro vibe makes Spaceman:Dada:Robot feel a bit like a collection of old Ray Bradbury short stories scored by Seventies art rockers. But that makes its appeal sound merely nostalgic when what's really engaging about the show is the way it reconnects us to our sense of wonder about space, how its infinite reaches pull those of us on this tiny floating rock closer together. "We're all cosmonaut gypsies," Jewell reminds us here. "We're all lost in space."

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Spaceman:Dada:Robot, Electronic Planet Ensemble, Chad Salvata, David Jewell, Sergio Samayoa, Rachel Fuhrer

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