Nina DiGregorio-led quartet performs Friday at Four Winds
NEW BUFFALO — Nina DiGregorio is quick to tell anyone planning to attend her show, “Femmes of Rock” starring Bella Electric Strings, to leave any preconceived expectations at the door.
“The show won’t be what anyone thinks it is,” she says. “It’s all of your favorite classic rock tunes heard in a way you’ve never heard before.”
That’s because “Femmes of Rock” features a violin string quartet on electric instruments shredding to tunes like Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train.”
Led by rock violinist, arranger and founder DiGregorio, the show also features electric violinists Christina Riegert, Carissa Werner and Chandra Meibalane backed by a band of Michael Licata (drums), John Wedemeyer (guitar) and Michael Kelly (bass), who performs Friday at Four Winds Casino Resort’s Silver Creek Event Center.
DiGregorio, who has performed with everyone from Shakira to Toni Braxton to Wayne Newton, spoke recently about creating a show with the electric violin in the spotlight.
Q So how did this whole idea start for you with this quartet?
A We started out as an electric quartet a few years back and we did mostly corporate events with backing tracks. I had been writing these string quartet arrangements of popular songs probably since I was 12 or 13 years old. Someone saw us at one of these events and said, “Hey, I own a theater, would you be able to do a 90-minute stage show we could sell tickets for?” Of course I said, “Yes,” hung up the phone and realized I had to go write a show. In essence that’s how we started.
The first couple of shows were pretty bare-bones, but the talent of the girls and the arrangements were enough to carry the show. And now here we are about a year later and we’ve got a ton of production and video that syncs with our choreography and it’s a real hard-hitting rock show and polished production now.
“Femmes of Rock,” led by Nina DiGregorio, performs Friday night at Four Winds Casino.Photo provided / Patrick Rivera Photography
Q So how did you get interested in the violin growing up?
A I started playing piano at 6 years old because I was asking for lessons and we had a piano in the house. When we got to the fourth grade in school, we got to choose an instrument to play in band or orchestra. I really wanted to play the saxophone because I was interested in jazz and old rock and roll. The band director called me into his office and because I was so small he didn’t think I was going to be able to carry it on the bus everyday. So he suggested the violin because they had some openings and it would be lighter. And that’s how I started on the violin.
Q Where did this idea of electrifying the violin come from for you?
A When I was young, Woodstock ’94 was happening, so they started showing all these videos of Woodstock ’69, and I saw Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the sounds he was getting out of his guitar and it blew my mind. That was the moment I decided I had to try to do this on violin. My dad had a little Marshall amplifier and I took my cheap electric violin and plugged into his amp and messed with the settings and taught myself “The Star-Spangled Banner” à la Jimi Hendrix style, and when my parents got home from work I said, “Listen what I can do.” And it was like, “Oh boy, so it begins.” I’ve been through about 100 different effects pedals and boards and creating my tones. It’s kind of become my thing – figuring out these really good tones on electric violin. That’s what the show is, showing that the violin can really be a standout rock instrument.
Q I know you’ve been a guest artist for others and that could have been your career path. So what made you create Bella Electric Strings and “Femmes of Rock”?
A It was my career path for a long time performing in other people’s bands. But what I noticed is that your entire job is at the discretion of someone else and how the artist feels that week or if they decided to have a baby and start a family or whether or not they used too many drugs and can’t make all the shows happen. My livelihood was dependent on someone else all the time, and I didn’t like that. Also the string players are always the last thing they add and the first thing they cut when the budget is cut for a show. I needed to create more secure work for string players where we star in the show and we can create our own job opportunities. We have more than 30 string players so far, and growing. Sometimes we have up to five different shows playing on the same night throughout the world.
Q What are some of your favorites to play on stage, and some of the challenges of creating the arrangements?
A I have to say it’s a little self-indulgent because I write all the arrangements and I’ve picked all my favorite songs to do in the show. I was very much into classic rock guitar players, so we do things from Queen and The Who and Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, of course. When I pick songs, you have to to pick things that translate to violin. Things that are really groove or chord oriented can be really boring on violin, but when there’s a really good melodic structure to it, it sounds really good on violin. The “Crazy Train” solo sounds really good on violin. Then I add things not in the original recordings because there’s not a string quartet in the original recordings, so their unique, and we throw a little vocals in there and of course some violin shredding.
Contact: jbonfiglio@TheHP.com, 932-0364, Twitter: @HPBonfiglio