Far from stuffy, these violin, viola and cello players can really rock the house.
CLEVELAND -- String quartets aren't supposed to be named Ethel.
They should be named something snooty. Something that immediately turns off a large percentage of music fans because the name alone sounds like it can best be heard by a discriminating ear in an opulent concert hall, where audiences in tuxedos and formal wear can enjoy the arts.
That said, Ethel couldn't be more atypical. This quartet, featuring violinists Todd Reynolds and Mary Rowell, violist Ralph Farris and cellist Dorothy Lawson, rocks the house with amplified strings and improvisational-friendly material often resulting in a visceral reaction by its audience.
Having just passed through Northeast Ohio earlier this spring for a memorable show at the Beachland Ballroom, Ethel returns to Ohio as an opener on the double bill of Todd Rundgren and Joe Jackson. The tour, which plays Cleveland on Tuesday at the Playhouse Square Center's State Theatre, finds the perfect audience for the eclectic Ethel.
A good fit
"If you take a look at Todd and Joe, and the different types of people who have followed them forever, they are not just hit mongers out there," Reynolds said, calling from outside of Philadelphia. "These are people who are thinking people. And it's very interesting to have the three of us equally sort of speaking to the same kind of audience. It's really fascinating to see where the lines are and to be linked with them. It sort of feels right on some level."
While Reynolds and Rowell have been on the New York City music scene since the late 1980s, Ethel didn't really come together until the late 1990s. Its eponymous 2003 debut CD features mainly other composers' pieces, which were commissioned by the band.
The idea was to attract liberal-minded composers to work their craft within Ethel's electrified and seemingly unfettered style. The result is a standout album that captures the outfit's classical-yet-contemporary-rock mindset.
Even more impressive is the fact the quartet eschewed the all-too-easy, and thus very slippery slope, approach of covering a well-known rock song.
"We don't need another [Led Zeppelin] 'Kashmir' cover, although we love that tune," Reynolds said. "Believe me, it's crossed our minds but we sort of avoided that like the plague. It's one thing to have people who need a label but it's an entirely different thing to all of a sudden be cornered into a novelty act."
Invariably, novelty is one word that audiences haven't been using to describe Ethel's live show.
"Seeing Ethel live is really a whole different ballgame than hearing us on a record," Rowell said. "There's an electricity and a sound that I think comes across and it's certainly not your father's string quartet."