Rebecca Roudman has a complicated relationship with the cello. Classically trained from childhood, she performs with two Bay Area symphonies. But all things being equal, she’d rather just shred.
“I’ve never been a huge fan of classical music,” she says from Berlin, where her band, Dirty Cello, is on an eight-city tour of Europe. (They perform at Coffee Gallery Backstage in Altadena on Aug. 12). “Polite applause is great, but in-your-face cheering is so much better.”
As Dirty Cello’s vocalist and co-leader (along with her husband, guitarist Jason Eckl), Roudman, 38, gets to hear that sometimes-deafening applause. Onstage, she channels heroes Yo-Yo Ma and Jimi Hendrix, with a little Bonnie Raitt and Axl Rose tossed in for good measure. The group seamlessly careens from blues to bluegrass and rock in a way that really shouldn’t make sense but somehow does.
But the band and its high-wire genre-busting nearly didn’t happen. Roudman had majored in music in college, but, at graduation, thought she’d reached the end of the line. She was about to pull the trigger on a career as a math teacher but Eckl, then her boyfriend, intervened.
“He focused on the idea that there are few things cooler than making a living as a professional musician,” she says. “He talked about things that I couldn’t really imagine at the time, like traveling the world with my cello. But years later, his predictions came true.”
They’ve even incorporated their travel and travails into the creative process. Dirty Cello’s fourth album, “Road Trip,” was wholly inspired by some oddball journeys.
“Jason and I stayed at seven of the weirdest places to stay in California, from a yurt to a buffalo ranch,” Roudman says. “And at each new place we stayed, we recorded a song; from having mice run across our legs to inadvertently angering a mother water buffalo, our crazy trip produced some great stories and an album we’re really excited about.”
Roudman’s musical odyssey began with her first cello lessons at age 6. But even as a beginner, she knew she didn’t want to draw inside the lines. “My mom showed me a newspaper article where I had my first quote. A local reporter asked me — when I was 7 years old — why I liked to play the cello. I told her that I liked ‘to move my fingers along the strings and make weird noises.’”
At first, the weird noises took a backseat to convention. By her early 20s, Roudman had earned spots in four major Bay Area symphonies.
“But I wanted more,” she says. At a Bay Area event called Vallejo’s Got Talent, Roudman says, “I thought it would fun to audition for that on a rock song.” Starting with a Bach suite, she quickly segued into the Scorpions’ hesher anthem “Rock You Like a Hurricane.”
“The audience went wild, and it was such a great turning point for me. I wasn’t sure if people would actually like rock cello — it seemed like a weird thing to do. I ended up winning that night, receiving $50, and having people coming up to me asking to buy one of my CDs. I had never recorded a CD, and this was the only rock song I knew at that point.”
The seeds for Dirty Cello had been planted. “Originally the band was a hobby with the stated goals of doing something fun,” she says. “In five years we’ve gone from that to around 100 shows per year and we’re on our fifth international tour.”
Like the improv jazz and rock of decades past, Dirty Cello like to walk a tightrope when they’re onstage, Roudman explains. “We start with the roots of all the American forms of music, a bunch of blues, a sparkle of bluegrass, the improvisation of jazz, and some good old ‘60s and ‘70s rock. As each show progresses, we see what the audience likes, often changing our sets on the fly.”
It’s pretty clear Roudman will try anything once. She even found herself on “America’s Got Talent” a few seasons back. But her cello-shredding didn’t appeal to the judges. “The magic of editing made the experience look worse than it actually was,” she remembers. “Howie Mandel asked me before I even began playing something along the lines of, ‘You can’t really make a living playing cello can you?’ When I responded, ‘Of course you can’ with a smile,that seemed to anger him and the judges. But, looks like I was right after all.”
What: Dirty Cello
Where: Coffee Gallery Backstage, 2029 Lake Ave., Altadena
When: Friday, Aug. 12, 8 p.m.
More info: (626) 798-6236, www.coffeegallery.com
ERIK HIMMELSBACH-WEINSTEIN is a contributor to Marquee.