Uncle Dad’s collective channels the Queen of Pop
When the Uncle Dad’s Art Collective band holds practice, it needs something bigger than a cramped garage or basement with soundproofing mattresses lining the walls.
For rehearsals of its upcoming Madonna tribute show at Laxson Auditorium (Jan. 24-26), the group needed an entire gallery inside the cavernous Museum of Northern California Art to fit the band, a vocal quartet and lead singer—20 performers in all. And that’s just the half of it. An even bigger adjoining gallery was needed to accommodate the production crew, a dance troupe, a couple of vocal ensembles, plus a rotating cast of guest singers coming together to put on a big-band musical-theater tribute to the Queen of Pop.
And from the opening song at the first “stumble through” rehearsal, the performers in the super-sized cast were already playing well off one another, filling up both large rooms in the museum with energy as Lauren Sutton-Beattie belted out the hard-swinging Dick Tracy-inspired hit “Hanky Panky.”
After the first song, the show’s director, Julia Rauter, seemed relieved, and in an interview the next day admitted that she enjoys this part of the process.
“Every time we do a show, I want to cry when I do a rehearsal,” she said. “Everyone is so good, and so expressive and so special.”
Rauter has become one of Uncle Dad’s core organizers, especially for the tributes at Laxson that have now become an annual feature on the Chico Performances calendar. Previous years have featured productions built around Queen’s A Night at the Opera, the Beatles’ Abbey Road and the music of Stevie Wonder (the latter two were also directed by Rauter).
“We have this great opportunity to do this show at Laxson that is more than just a show with a band,” Rauter said. “It’s not just music; it’s for all the senses. It’s a big spectacle of the incredible talent that somehow has come to Chico and the surrounding areas,” Rauter said.
In fact, it’s the wealth of local talent that informs the Uncle Dad’s model for the show, which mandates that artists are sourced completely from the North State. “We use these shows as an excuse to get all the artists that we think should be working together in the same room working on one project at the same time,” said Joshua Hegg, musical director and one of the keyboardists for the Madonna show.
This year, Rauter said the goal was to feature the work of a female artist for the first time. Though there were other possibilities in the mix—Amy Winehouse, Fleetwood Mac, etc.—Madonna wound up as the obvious choice.
“She’s such a chameleon,” Rauter said. “She was really unapologetic about her sexuality and what she believed in.”
The show is kind of a retrospective of Madonna’s career, with 18 songs culled from her four decades of music-making, but with the bulk of the set comprising the 1980s and ’90s hits of her heyday.
Each selection features one or more guest vocalists—some plucked from the Uncle Dad’s ensemble (e.g., Sutton-Beattie, Jenise Coon, Michael Bone), some from the local community (Matilda Krulder, The Bidwells duo, rappers Calvin Black and Saint Jame, etc.)—and Hegg said that, for this show, the process of matching songs to singers was done differently.
“Most years we write the arrangements and decide [the] scope of the song and find people to fit that vibe,” he said. “This year, the bulk of them were written with the vocalists decided ahead of time.” Hegg sent notes to the various arrangers and included links with sample vocals. “We wanted the whole show to be created from the ground up all at the same time,” he said.
Given the songs, the show naturally will highlight Madonna’s themes of female empowerment and championing the LGBTQ community, while also playing off her fun, unabashed sexuality.
“It’s meant to be a vast retelling of what we think is Madonna’s essence,” Hegg said.