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Music Review: Orchestra serves up blues rock cocktail with Big Wave Dave

If Duluth-based soul rockers Big Wave Dave and the Ripples were a drink, the group would be ice-cold beers dished out in long-neck bottles by a bartender in jeans.

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"Big Wave" Dave Adams performs in Duluth in March 2015. (file / News Tribune)

If Duluth-based soul rockers Big Wave Dave and the Ripples were a drink, the group would be ice-cold beers dished out in long-neck bottles by a bartender in jeans.

If the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra were a drink it would be a stirred-not-shaken vodka martini delivered in a long-stemmed glass by wait staff in a tuxedo.

Like drinking a little too much Bent Hop and chasing it with top-shelf hard liquor, mixing gritty, horn-infused rhythm and blues with a sophisticated 52-piece orchestra can be a slightly dangerous.

But it also can be really fun.

In a bold, experimental and ultimately groovy night of music, Big Wave Dave and the Ripples performed with the DSSO for about 1,500 people at Symphony Hall on Saturday night. The two-set, 16-song performance sponsored by the News Tribune highlighted original band material, classic 1960s soul covers, lush orchestration, violins and some dramatic timpani.

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In his opening remarks, guest conductor Christopher Zimmerman, who debuted professionally in England and currently serves as musical director of the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony, told the audience a fun night was ahead with music as daring as some Beethoven or Tchaikovsky works.

"We are not frequently compared to Tchaikovsky," joked band leader and vocalist "Big Wave" Dave Adams, "but I'm flattered."

Adams then encouraged the audience to get up and dance in the aisles if they felt like it.

Formed in 2011, Big Wave Dave and the Ripples have performed in beer joints and road houses across the Northland, anywhere with a dance floor and a few places without, such as the Concerts on the Pier at Glensheen.

The full orchestra opened the evening with a charming "Themes from 007" medley. The nine-piece band featuring a horn section and electronic instruments then joined the stage in dark suits looking more like the Blues Brothers than James Bond.

Two original band compositions started the night of collaboration. "Real Thing" featured a grand orchestral middle passage and ended with a horn riff engulfed in strings. "Maxine" was sparked with plucks and scratches from the violin chairs and quickly moved to material inspired by R&B greats Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett.

Lights dimmed on the orchestra and musicians sat at rest while the band performed two high-tempo soul nuggets. Concertmaster Erin Aldridge then crossed the stage and joined the group on violin. In a show highlight, Big Wave Dave and the Ripples tore into the Motown hit "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" while Aldridge soloed, making her fine-tuned instrument sound like a sizzling front-porch fiddle.

"I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)," a 1965 Four Tops hit, got excellent mashup treatment with Redding's "I Can't Turn You Loose," and Adams roared through the Memphis soul anthem "Take Me To the River," like John Fogerty in a bigfoot tie and bat belt buckle.

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While Big Wave Dave and Ripples perform undeniable dance music, few audience members took to their feet. Perhaps it was the limited space and tight Symphony Hall seating, a typically sedate orchestra crowd or expensive drinks. The lack of dancers could also be a visual issue: Fifty idle musicians dressed in black formal wear sitting next to a roaring blues rock band looks awkward and does not inspire dance floor moves.

The grand sound experiment worked best when show arranger Dr. Greg Kehl Moore used The Ripples' original material to engage all the musicians. "Funk Bat" featured a huge orchestral introduction that swirled with movement. "Killed by You" offered a ringing vibraphone followed by a cool organ groove from Brian Wells.

Show closer "Hold On" successfully merged the orchestra and band together on equal footing. Song composer Matt Wasmund ignited the piece with a glistening baritone sax solo that carried the song to its fun and funky ending. The audience responded with a lengthy standing ovation. "Hold On" was so good it was performed a second time as an encore, with different Ripples taking solos, to end the evening.

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