Taking a break from their busy U.K. tour, Britain’s electrifying string quartet, String Fever, wowed Cayman audiences last month when they kicked off the 10th annual Cayman Arts Festival in grand style. The Journal caught up with the talented foursome to learn about the evolution of the group and enjoy their stunning performance at First Baptist Church.
A blend of highly virtuoso talent, exuberant beat box rhythm and comedic routine marks the unique style of String Fever, a stylish and energetic electric string quartet comprising three brothers – Giles, Ralph and Neal Broadbent – and cousin Graham Broadbent, playing violin, viola and cello.
In their blood
“We come from a family of musicians as both our dads are professional musicians and violin teachers, so we grew up in a family where strings were constantly played, performing in youth orchestras and so on,” Ralph explains.
Giles and Ralph went on to study at the Royal Academy of Music and Graham at Royal College. The decision to start their own group was taken 10 years ago.
“We thought we’d like to go off on a bit of a tangent,” Ralph says. “The three older players were already professional musicians, playing in West End musicals such as ‘My Fair Lady’ and ‘Phantom of the Opera,’ and the youngest, Neal, had just left school. Giles, the oldest, had always been interested in playing electric instruments and had wanted to form his own band so we decided to give it a go.”
The quartet plays with handcrafted “violectras” that are made in the U.K. out of wood, each a unique instrument. While the quartet was deciding what type of direction to take musically, they met an agent who was looking for a musical comedy act.
“We got our act together and came up with some ideas that would be suitable, such as the history of music, which remain part of our act today,” Ralph says.
The four players complement each other in different ways, Ralph says.
“While we were all close growing up as a family, we are quite different in personality, and it was a happy accident that our different personalities combined so well as a group.
“Graham is the larger than life character, Neal is the cool young one, I do all of the speaking on stage because I’m comfortable doing so, and Giles is the skilled, highly virtuoso performer and offstage he is the boss and makes all the decisions.”
The group first developed a 25 minute cabaret/comedy act and then, Ralph says, they bumped into a comedian who was looking for an act such as theirs to perform on cruise ships.
“It was great,” he says. “They flew us in for a few days and we had the stage, but we had to expand our set as they were looking for a 45 minute performance. We did that for a couple of years, developing our material and then our dad celebrated his 60th birthday so we hired out a venue and expanded our act to an hour. Nowadays we have enough material for around two hours.”
Ralph says the group still keeps the favorites such as the history of music, and “Bolero,” in which they all play the cello simultaneously, because people have come to expect these pieces and they would be disappointed if the group didn’t include them.
Ralph lists his influences as British violinist Nigel Kennedy and also comedian Dudley Moore. Neal’s influences are more soul and funk, Ralph says: bands such as Dirty Loops, a three-piece Swedish band, and Snarky Puppy, a Brooklyn, New York-based band.
“These influences help Neal as he is a one-man rhythm section. He first started beat boxing in his bedroom and now it’s become part of the act, after we persuaded him that it would be a success on stage. Sometimes we hear him trying out a new sound in the back of the car,” Ralph says. “All the best parts of our act have come about through happy accidents such as that. I think that’s what has made us successful as we have grown organically.”
String Fever has plans to head off to the United States this month. (Immediately after the Cayman Arts Festival the group was going to Tahiti to play on a cruise ship.)
“We’ve toured in 27 U.S. states and we are well received there,” Ralph says. “They seem a bit more vocal than the U.K. audiences and seem to be genuinely fascinated at having not one but four English people in the room at the same time! In addition, they enjoy our rendition of ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia.’ They say they’ve never heard that song performed with an English accent before, although we thought Graham had been doing a great American accent up until that point!”
String Fever at CAF
This year was the group’s second time in the Cayman Islands. They performed at the 2006 Cayman Arts Festival after being introduced to Cayman via one of the artistic directors of the festival, Jennifer Micallef, with whom Ralph had studied at London’s Royal Academy.
“We played together as part of a piano trio for a short while and years later she remembered me and asked String Fever to perform at the Cayman Arts Festival. We enjoy coming to Cayman – the people are very welcoming and friendly and it’s a bit like a home away from home really, with such a large British ex-pat community,” he says.
Introducing String Fever at this year’s Festival, artistic director Glen Inanga said the group had already performed for around 500 schoolchildren the previous day, all of whom gave the band a standing ovation with calls for an encore.
“It was a great experience,” Ralph confirms.
For the main performance that launched the 2014 Cayman Arts Festival, String Fever burst onstage with a lively rendition of the Beatles’s “Eleanor Rigby” to a crowd determined to enjoy themselves and hungry for world-class entertainment. The audience was engaged straight away with the group’s fast-paced run through 20 movie theme tunes, with Ralph daring the audience to name them all. “Mary Poppins,” “Star Wars,” “The Godfather,” “Pink Panther,” “Mission Impossible” and “Titanic” were some of the instantly recognizable movie anthems, all performed with great humor and a good deal of fun.
Ralph then explained that the group had spent much time busking around Europe and thus the gypsy music of Eastern Europe, predominantly featuring the violin, was a clear influence in their current musical direction. The players excelled in this musical genre because it allowed for plenty of physical interaction and comedic timing as well as first-class performance.
“Brahms Hungarian dance No. 5” was as lively and intricate a performance as you will ever find, while the group’s performance of their uncle Nigel Broadbent’s (who plays with the London Symphony Orchestra) composition, “Giselle” was equally stunning. String Fever’s journey through some of the greatest operas ever written was particularly well received. But for me, the sensitive and beautiful performance of “Adagio by Albinoni” was the hit, with Giles’s dexterous skills superbly on show, as they were in Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons (Third Movement, Winter).”
The history of music in five minutes was another obvious audience-pleaser, as was the show-stopping performance of Ravel’s “Bolero,” which had each of the four members playing the cello at the same time while two audience members were duly selected to play the all-important final note.
“Roll Over Beethoven” was another popular selection, highlighting the incredible versatility of the group – one minute making their instruments sound like a complete orchestra, the next a rock ‘n’ roll band, all with just four electric stringed instruments and Neal’s beat box rhythm.
An encore was inevitable following a standing ovation, with the audience still hungry for more, so a fast and furious extra helping of Hungarian gypsy music rounded off the show nicely.
Let’s hope it’s not another eight years before Cayman catches String Fever again.