As someone who accessorizes with top hats and mustachioed swag, it’s no surprise that Eric Stern is spending his day off from touring in a Berkeley coffee shop called the Royal Ground. He leads a Portland-based band called Vagabond Opera that will debut The Pocket Watch, its first show with a plot, at SOhO this Sunday. Their performance style incorporates an old-timey flair that marks their theatrical contribution to the neo-cabaret phenomenon. The Vagabonds play a variety of instruments that run the gamut from cellos to theremins to accordion. They sing in 14 different languages and draw inspiration from Arabian music, tango, and Parisian hot jazz — all of which hardly cover their near-encyclopedic derivations. But Stern is self-aware of how these sounds mix together. “The biggest danger is that [these different sounds] don’t just become a hodgepodge of stuff thrown against the wall,” he said, “so we really try to integrate it with the show.”
And that’s just the music. The Sepiatonic dancers join the Vagabonds by bringing the moves: a fusion of cabaret and Balkan belly dancing that adds a vaudevillian quality to the show. Stern even calls one of the dancers, Karolina Lux, “a real highlight of the show, for sure.”
Looking at pictures of Stern, he appears to have stepped out of a top-hat-laden time portal, and in conversation he proves himself a real Renaissance man. He developed an appreciation for music by way of his parents, who own and run a record store in Philadelphia and play instruments. He was classically trained in opera singing in Philadelphia and Europe, and traveled to places like Turkey and Greece to perform. As director of the Vagabond Opera, he says he keeps his leadership style in check: “[My position] does not mean that you give orders but really that you put people in the right places so that they can do their best work.” He even has advice for aspiring mustache groomers: “It’s best if you shave it off and start from the beginning of training it to go a certain way right from the beginning with a firm yet gentle touch.” It’s clear that kind of touch has been the guiding force behind the band.
The Vagabond Opera plays SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St.) on Sunday, June 30 at 8 p.m. Call (805) 962-7776 or visit sohosb.com.