Ultrasonic Rock Orchestra to play classics in 5 shows at Foxwoods, starting Feb. 17
To measure President and CEO Felix Rappaport’s impact on Foxwoods Resort Casino, you need only ponder the deals he’s cut in recent years — for flashy restaurants, 25th anniversary events and eco-tourism rides at the sprawling complex.
In addition to the longtime parade of A-list entertainers at the resort’s top two theaters, we can’t help but notice five shows in the coming months for Boston-based Ultrasonic Rock Orchestra.
“We were playing in Boston,” said band co-founder Sal Clemente in a phone chat recently, “and we were doing our version of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’... The CEO of Foxwoods, Felix Rappaport, just showed up at the show. He just loved the band, and came up after the show and said, ‘I want you guys to play down at Foxwoods.’”
The band did two sellout shows at Foxwoods a year ago, and Feb. 17 brings the first of five return shows.
But rewind some years first: Pennsylvania native Clemente moved to Boston for arts reasons and met “fantastic, world-class musicians” there, including music partner Alan Ware (a British drummer). The two moved through various musical ventures and then, during a foray into filmmaking, put together a large band in order to perform “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
Foxwoods Resort Casino, Fox Theater, 350 Trolley Line Blvd., Mashantucket. Saturday, Feb. 17, 8 p.m. $35-$25. 860-312-3000 Foxwoods.com
The film part ran into a roadblock named Andrew Lloyd Webber, but the live band show “was so well-received, we were like ‘Well, maybe we should be trying to do this kind of thing where we ... give people a new connection to this music that they love, but they never get to hear live,’ ” Clemente said.
That was 2004, and since then the 15-member band has been well-regarded in the Boston area (and played gigs across the country), performing the “crown jewels” of British rock, including a killer version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and other fist-in-the-air classics.
In doing benefit shows after the Boston Marathon bombing, the group found new traction singing the hits of Boston groups and then other American groups. That led to “URO USA,” a themed show with American rock anthems from Aerosmith, Boston, Kansas, Styx, Heart and others (the second and third shows at Foxwoods are March 9 and 10) and the specialty concert “Bowie Lives,” with all David Bowie songs (at Foxwoods April 6 and 7).
As for the opener, “The February show is what we call our standard show, which is a Brit rock show. So we’re doing Queen, The Beatles, The Who, Zeppelin, that kind of thing,” Clemente said.
What separates USO from ordinary tribute groups is the range of its nine vocalists, to the point where the band can choose difficult songs to sing (“Dream On”) and hand off parts of the song from one vocalist to another. That works with chorus and solos on “Bohemian,” which was a studio masterpiece Queen couldn’t sing the same way live.
“Hopefully,” said Clemente, “we’re presenting something to people that they can’t get anywhere else. Unless those bands are playing somewhere and doing their thing, you’re not going to hear the vocals the way that Styx did them or Kansas did them. Even Boston, Aerosmith. Some of those songs are really tough to pull off live.”
That’s without bowl-cut wigs or period costumes, it should be noted. “That was definitely a conscious choice of ours, to say, ‘Look, we don’t want anybody imitating these people. We just want the maximum version of you we can get on stage.”
URO, said Clemente, had just started to get traction nationally when the recession hit a decade ago. It’s been a long climb back, made complicated by corralling and paying such a large group.
“Frankly, the Foxwoods things are a great opportunity for us,” Clemente said. “Because it really only happens when people like Felix take a chance on you, and then their audience gets to see what he saw.”
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