On Stage: Champions of Magic dazzle at Merriam

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By Denny Dyroff, Entertainment Editor, The Times

Champions of Magic

Champions of Magic sounds like a grand title for a touring entertainment show but the name hits the nail on the head when it describes the magic show that is visiting Philadelphia this week.

From June 20-24, the Kimmel Center is presenting Champions of Magic at the Merriam Theater (250 South Broad Street, Philadelphia, 215-893-1999, kimmelcenter.org).

The five world-class illusionists that make up this mind-bending theatrical production are coming to Philadelphia for the very first time, following sold-out shows, rave reviews and a run in London’s West End.

The show features illusionists Young & Strange, acclaimed mind reader Alex McAleer, escapologist Fernando Velasco and close-up magician Kayla Drescher.

The production features mostly original magic that was created or devised by the performers and production designers. The show is known for its production including a large lighting rig and pyrotechnic effects.

The cast of top magicians includes international award-winners presenting incredible mind reading, stunning close-up magic and daring large-scale illusions. The production includes disappearances, levitation, teleportation and a heart stopping finale — all presented with lighting and special effects to rival the biggest theatrical spectacles.

Champions of Magic opened in the UK in October 2013 at Reading Hexagon Theatre and has since completed six U.K. tours and a run in London. The show completed a U.S. tour in 2017 which was extended due to demand, concluding in March 2018.

The show features illusionists Young & Strange, acclaimed mind reader Alex McAleer, escapologist Fernando Velasco and close-up magician Kayla Drescher. The show features mostly original magic that was created or devised by the performers and production designers. The show is known for its production including a large lighting rig and pyrotechnic effects

Young & Strange met when they were eight years old. Their early childhood friendship developed through a common interest in all things magic. They spent their early teenage years attempting, and failing, to make Las Vegas-style illusions with cardboard and tape. With little money, they were forced to innovate, creating original illusions and magic tricks. This soon caught the attention of magicians around the U.K. as an act to watch in the future.

“We both grew up in Carterton, a small town just west of Oxford,” said Sam Strange, during a recent trans-Atlantic phone interview from his home in Oxford.

“We’ve known each other since we were kids. We started doing private parties when we were young. We had a passion for stage illusions. David Copperfield was a big inspiration. He’s still a world leader. The emotion he gives to the audience is amazing.

“One magician we’d like to go watch is Houdini – to see if he could live up to the hype. All acts look hard to find something new but it’s quite difficult to be wholly original with illusion shows. We try very hard.”

In recent years, Young & Strange’s development and innovation of spectacular illusions have landed them spots on prime-time television and the large venues around the U.K.

“Because you perform a trick for an audience, when they re-tell the story, it gets misrepresented,” said Strange. “They change the details. It plays into the hands of the magician. The dialogue still resonates.

“When we did parties in our teenage years, we had a passion for stage illusions. We used all our money to buy stage illusions. We had props – but no stage. We ended up renting local theaters and learned how to market it. We’re lucky in the U.K. because we have the Edinburgh Fringe Art Festival. We did that for four years and our fan base started to grow.”

Young & Strange are famous for large-scale illusions with impressive pyrotechnics and arena-rock lighting. Both Strange and Young are members of The Magic Circle and were recently promoted to become Associate Members of The Inner Magic Circle. This is the highest qualification achievable through performance examination.

“We got picked up on this tour a few years ago,” said Strange. “It was a great state to put on our show. Over the course of six years with Champions of Magic, our show has evolved – and so has Champions of Magic. It started with small tours of the U.K. and now it tours worldwide. Young & Strange and Alex (McAleer) have been there since the start.”

Video link for Champions of Magic — https://vimeo.com/215531871.

Video link for Young & Strange — https://youtu.be/JVTiGwlOsVs.

The show at the Merriam is running now through June 24. Ticket prices range from $25-$125.

Moving over to the world of music, there are several interesting shows around the area on June 20.

Bad Bad Hats

MilkBoy Philadelphia (1100 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, 215- 925-6455, www.milkboyphilly.com) is hosting a show by Bad Bad Hats.

Bad Bad Hats is an indie rock band from Minneapolis, Minnesota featuring Kerry  Alexander (vocals, guitar), Chris Hoge (drums), and Noah Boswell (bass).

The band just announced that it will be releasing their sophomore full-length album, “Lightning Round,” on August 3 via Afternoon Records. The 10-song collection explores themes of dependence and independence in relationships, bolstered by the band’s signature equal parts grit-and-melody instrumental compositions.

“We recorded most of it in spring 2017,” said Alexander, during a phone interview last week from a tour stop in Cleveland, Ohio. “We recorded a few more songs in January.

“We recorded it in Minneapolis. We made it with Brett Bullion, the same guy who produced our first album. In one of our first shows, we played with Danny O’Brien. We talked to him about recording and he suggested Brett. When we were going to make our first album, we remembered that. We contacted Brett and he got back to us.”

Alexander and Hoge began writing songs together in 2010 and recorded a collection of demos that would later become their first EP. The addition of their friend Boswell in 2012 solidified the line-up.

“We all met at Macalester College in Saint Paul when we were students there,” said Alexander .“It just happened — and then worked out really well.

Before the three joined forces, Alexander recorded rough demos in her mom’s walk-in shower and sang 90s pop covers at open mic nights. Hoge played electric guitar in high school but took up drums in college to fill out his own fuzzy recordings. Boswell played in jazz band by day and spun turntables by night in a teen experimental rap squad called The Erotic Assassins.

“I grew up in a musical household,” said Alexander. “My mom plays viola. I took violin lessons when I was younger and also studied piano. When I got older, I didn’t see how I could make the music I liked with those instruments. So, I picked up guitar when I was about 13. I was listening to Michelle Branch and Alanis Morrisette. Letters to Cleo was the band that got me rocking out more.”

“Before I started working with Chris and Noah, I was playing a lot of open mics at a coffee shop near school. I played a fair amount of covers and was making demos on my computer with GarageBand.”

The indie rock trio’s songwriting quickly caught the ear of Minneapolis label Afternoon Records—a label that also featured Yellow Ostrich, Now Now, Haley Bonar, and One for the Team. Afternoon Records signed Bad Bad Hats and released the trio’s “It Hurts” EP in early 2013. Two years later, the band released its debut LP, “Psychic Reader.”

“When we were going into the studio for the first album, Brett suggested we hire a drummer to add a new sound,” said Alexander.

“Brett had worked with Noah on several projects before. We did as couple shows to practice the songs and then did a tour before we went in the studio. More brains and more hands in the room.”

Bolstered by the experimental touches of the album’s producer Brett Bullion, “Psychic Reader” drew from the influences of all three members and explores a variety of musical styles over the course of 33 minutes.

“With the songs we wanted to make and the sounds we wanted to make, it was time to go into the studio and do an album,” said Alexander. “It took about a month-and-a-half to make. There are 10 songs but it’s only just over 30 minutes. The songs are short and sweet.”

The new album, which will see the light of day soon, shows the band’s progress.

“I had a lot of songs written prior to going into thr studio to record When we were going into the studio for the first album, Brett suggested we hire a drummer to add a new sound,” said Alexander. “Brett had worked with Noah on several projects before. We did as couple shows to practice the songs and then did a tour before we went in the studio.”

Now, two years later, Bad Bad Hats has a new album that showcases the band’s progress.

“I had a lot of songs written a while before we went into the studio to record ‘Lightning Round,’” said Alexander. “But, we were on tour a lot after ‘Psychic Reader’ came out so the new album kept getting pushed back. It was all done early this year and then we had to spenda few months getting the ducks in a row.

“We tried a lot of different things oin the new album – including different ways of tracking. There’s more spontaneity. To me, it feels more organic and loose. When we were in the studio, we didn’t limit ourselves in any way.

“Now, we’re on a tour before the album comes out. I don’t know if we meant this to happen. But, we weren’t sure when the album was going to come out. We’re playing the new songs and gauging the crowd’s reaction. Five of the 10 songs we play are from the new album. The rest are form the EP and the first LP – and there is one new song that came after the album was made.”

Video link for Bad Bad Hats – https://youtu.be/2DZv_NQBeFg.

The show at MilkBoy, which has Future Teens as the opening act, will start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12.

Ciaran Lavery

Boot and Saddle (1131 South Broad Street, Philadelphia, 215-639-4528, www.bootandsaddlephilly.com) will present a twin-bill featuring Ciaran Lavery and Cicada Rhythm.

Lavery just arrived in the states this week from his home in Aghagallon, a small town just west of Belfast in Northern Ireland.

“Today, I’m at home in Ireland – organizing the last few things before the tour,” said Lavery, during a trans-Atlantic phone interview last week from his Irish home.

“I have a two-week tour of the states that starts in Philly. I’m travelling on my own. I love Aghagallon. It’s the perfect space where I can disappear.”

The award-winning singer-songwriter from Aghagallon in County Antrim, Ireland may be decorated at home by the Northern Ireland Music Prize (for his 2016 album ‘Let Bad In’) and might have racked up more than 80 million streams on Spotify during his five-year solo career, but it’s the unrivalled knack he has for a poetic heart-stopping lyric that’s set to earn him wider recognition as a treasured singer-songwriter.
But, Lavery took am indirect route on hs way to becoming as sensitive singer-songwriter.

“As a teenager, I was influenced by friends – anything that was sparking anarchy. I was drawn to that music –American punk music, hip hop, Eminem. My brother-in-law would drop off CDs for me to listen to – artists like Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell. I was quite impressionable at the time and that was my first exposure to singer-songwriters. Then, I picked up guitar and started writing songs in my teen years. And, I grew a diverse taste in music.

“Originally, I wanted to jump to electric guitar because I was a Green Day and Rage Against the Machine fan. I was in a terrible three-piece garage band for about a year. Then, I moved back to acoustic guitar. The acoustic guitar was like putting on comfortable clothing.

“Then, I got more switched on to storytellers. I always admired artist who can make albums that stick with you for years. I still approach recording like that. When I was on holiday with my parents when I was 15, my mom gave me a copy of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours.’ Now, it’s one of those nostalgic albums for me. It’s a time machine.

“Other singer-songwriters who were great storytellers that I drew inspiration from were Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Townes van Zandt. Like most musicians, you’re a chameleon at first and then develop your own style. I’ve tried on different hats.”

Lavery’s current stateside tour is in support of his new album, “Sweet Decay,” which was released April 13 via AllPoints.

The new record was recorded over a period of time,” said Lavery. “I started in the summer of 2016. I walked in the studio with a few tracks. The next thing I knew, we had a live band in the room. I also spent a lot of time touring.

“In the past, I’d block out a period of time and work on the album until it was finished. This time, I’d be in the studio for a few days, then tour, then go back in the studio. It was tough to jump in-and-out of that bubble. It probably took about a year altogether – at irregular intervals. I made the album with producer Ruadhri Cushnan at Camden Studios in Dublin.”

Lavery has received a lot of critical acclaim for his ability to tell stories through his songs. – but he offers no answer whether his is a storyteller who writes songs or a songwriter who tells stories.

“When it comes to making songs, I don’t consider myself as either/or for songwriting and storytelling. I create my music with acoustic guitar and piano. I never consider myself to be a traditional storyteller.

“I try to write as honestly as I can. Right now, I need to write in a style like diary entries.”

Video link for Ciaran Lavery – https://youtu.be/TnyHSHEAm0U.

The show at Boot and Saddle, which also features Cicada Rhythm and Orion Freeman, will start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12.

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