Guitarist Dave Watkins started the Colloquial Orchestra in October 2009 after being asked to play the Courtyard in the arts district on First Fridays.
During an early evening solo set, he’d play his hand-crafted dulcitar, looping it to create lush soundscapes, and then ask a musician friend or two — that first night, Matt Klimas — to join him for a more experimental, ambient late set.
Unbeknownst to attendees, that was only one of many Colloquial Orchestra performances recorded by Cherub Records founder and soon-to-be Orchestra member P.J. Sykes.
Sitting in the subterranean Listening Room in February 2010, a roomful of silent audience members witnessed another early performance of the band, this time with Chad Ebel playing bouzouki, Klimas on baritone ukulele and Watkins on dulcitar. The latter chose the name Colloquial Orchestra for its ambiguous nature, knowing his penchant for inviting anyone he respected to play.
“If there’s a tag line for the Colloquial Orchestra, it’s that I got to be in a band with all my favorite bands,” Watkins says of playing with members of Adah, Nick Coward and the Last Battle, the Diamond Center, Dumbwaiter, Hoax Hunters, Marionette, Me and My Arrow, Navi, Nelly Kate, Night Idea, the Snowy Owls, Jonathan Vassar, Way, Shape, or Form, and White Laces over the years.
A 2011 show at now-defunct Globehopper Coffee featured him and Klimas along with Sykes, Jameson Price and Nathaniel Roseberry of Lobo Marino, and violinist Joon Kim, who often wound up playing while writhing on the ground to great dramatic effect.
When WRIR and “The Commonwealth of Notions” presented a show in July 2012, Watkins tried a new setup, with the musicians — himself, Klimas, Kim, Sykes, Shannon Keeter, Brandon Martin, Ben Nicastro and Adam Rose — along the walls and the audience at its center for a 27-minute improvised piece that rattled Gallery5’s rafters.
“This isn’t about soloing, it’s about listening and reacting, hearing what others are doing and adding to that,” Watkins says. “We let it build and relax and follow the feel of the music and sound in the room.”
Longtime member Sykes wouldn’t even inform Watkins what instrument he’d be playing for a show, relishing the opportunity to perform without playing guitar. Instead, he’d bring a box of noisemakers, a bass guitar, effects pedals or, once, a keytar.
“This wasn’t a thought-out process, it was just a thing we were doing and documenting,” Sykes says of years recording and archiving. “It was lucky because we didn’t know people would be interested six years later. One thing Cherub taught me is to keep control of your stuff and document it because no one else is going to.”
By February 2014, the Colloquial Orchestra represented a veritable who’s who of Richmond’s expanded music scene with 16 people — Watkins, Kim, Sykes, Tristan Brennis, Adam Brice, Tim Falen, Kyle Flanagan, Greg Garner, Troy Gatrell, Jon Hawkins, Joseph Hawkins, Evan Hoffman, Keeter, Clair Morgan, Ben Nicastro, Adam Tsai — playing for WRIR’s annual birthday party.
From the early days as an acoustic outfit through an experimental phase to a fully electric ensemble with multiple drummers, the band mirrored larger changes in Richmond’s scene.
This month, many of those performances become available digitally, although Sykes says it’s an unusual release because he doesn’t expect anyone to listen to all four and a half hours.
“Here’s a cultural history document you can selectively listen to or if you want to dive into it all, you can,” he says. “But if you only take 30 minutes and sample through the music, you can definitely hear the growth and changes in Richmond’s music scene.”
It’s a scene he believes should be reflected in what gets played at local shops and restaurants. “I will make a mix for them catering to their clientele,” Sykes promises. “If we celebrate ourselves like D.C. and Philly, all local bands benefit.” S
Colloquial Orchestra “Alive in Richmond” is available on Cherub.rocks, Spotify and iTunes.