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Concert Report: The Klezmatics

Your Humble Blogger was lucky enough to get to see The Klezmatics in concert last weekend. Well, I was lucky enough to get a babysitter. The tickets we bought, so I’m not sure that luck played a large part in that. It was good fortune, though.

The concert was in the sanctuary of a large conservative shul that looked much like most other large conservative shuls I’ve been in, that is, not quite entirely like a high school auditorium, but with pews and a few panels of very bad stained glass. The sound was muddy, unfortunately, which may have been the mixing but was more likely just the acoustics of the hall. The band was set up on the bimah itself, but the ark was covered by a drape, so it wasn’t quite as odd as it might have been, although the band members occasionally sat down on the big ugly chairs normally occupied by whichever of the rabbi, chazzan, shul president or ritual committee happen to be on the bimah and not active.

The audience was mostly, it seemed, from the host congregation. Mostly middle-aged and elderly people, with a fair sprinkling of thirtyish Hartford hipsters and some teenagers with their parents. On the whole, though, this was not a crowd that had come out to dance in the aisles. This was a crowd who, went they went to hear some klezmorim, wanted to her Di Grine Kusine and Rojinkes mit Mandlen. Or, more likely, didn’t go out to hear klezmorim very often, but felt they should support Jewish Music. The Klezmatics came out and went right into Wheel of Life from the Wonder Wheel album, which had an incredibly heavy, layered sound, very Asian/North African, and was greeted with, shall we say, muted enthusiasm. After that, they went right into Man in a Hat, which is one of my favorite Klezmatics songs, and they freakin’ ripped through it. I mean, they freakin’ ripped through it. Whew. I was completely exhilarated, but I think a lot of the crowd were kinda sitting there with their mouths open.

Then they went into three songs from “Davenen”, their Pilobolus collaboration, which were nice, but not really astonishing. The second of them featured a solo by Richie Barshay, a local boy who is sitting in on drums with them these days. In fact, we were in his home shul, which led to a few jokes about him substituting a drum solo for a d’var torah at his bar mitvah, which would have been, like, six months ago. Seriously, he’s a kid. But he’s (a) terrific, and (2) a local kid, so they gave him lots to do, and it was a Good Thing. They did a number called Spin, Dreidel, Spin from the Happy Joyous Hanukkah album, which was just Mr. Barshay on the drums, Lisa Gutkin on violin, and Matt Darriau on the Jew’s Harp, and it was fascinating and lovely. Ms. Gutkin claimed to have written it from a recording of a six-buttoned shirt tumbling in a clothesdryer, and it had some of that sense to it. The Jew’s Harp actually worked quite well as a sort of drone underneath, surprisingly enough.

After Spin, they did Headdy Down, which is heartbreakingly lovely, and was heartbreakingly lovely in concert. They didn’t attempt to recreate he end of the studio version, with the magnificent layered vocals, but finished with a quiet a cappela chorus that worked well enough. I have been singing the song to the Youngest Member (and to the Perfect Non-Reader, too, sometimes) as a lullaby, so it could be argued that I am bringing more to the song than is there, but I think in truth it’s the song (and the recording) that brought more to my lullaby-singing than was there. They went from that to Happy, Joyous Hanukkah, also with lyrics by Woody Guthrie, and it instantly became my favorite Hanukkah song ever, if only because all other Hanukkah songs stink on ice. Then an instrumental freilich, and then back to Woody for a truly inspirational rendition of Gonna Get through this World, with Ms. Gutkin on vocals.

They decided not to do any more Hanukkah songs (they admitted to a tradition, or more accurately a habit, of doing holiday songs at inappropriate seasons, but sadly they did not do my favorite Simchas Torah song), but did an actual Passover song called Ki Ley Nue, which was a bit repetitive, but like good repetitive songs, went through the bit where it seemed too long to the bit where it seemed like it had built up a lot of steam. This is evidently on their live album with Joshua Nelson, which I don’t have but which clearly Must Be Mine. After another instrumental (which struck me as very SonnyRollinsesque) and then we were heading home with a mellow, almost reggae version of Mermaid Avenue and then a long, slow Shnirele Perele. It wasn’t a great Shnirele Perele, unfortunately; it was very good, but both times I had seem them do it live, it wasn’t just good, it was inspirational. To some extent, I blame the band and their current arrangement, which is long on Lorin Sklamberg’s vocals and low on roof-raising instrumental hysteria. I’m not knocking Mr. Sklamberg, who is freakin’ awesome. To a large extent, his voice defines the band’s sound for me; if he were to leave for a new band, I would certainly buy his new band’s stuff, and only very probably continue buying The Klezmatics albums. But the arrangement of Shnirele Perele that was so mind-blowing balanced his impassioned vocals with the band better, built more gradually, and topped out much higher.

On the other hand, the crowd wasn’t as into it as they were at the other shows I’d been to, and that probably makes it impossible for the band to get quite as high. No dancing, not during this song, and not during any of the others. The applause was appreciative but not rowdy. Rhythmic hand-clapping during the songs was led by Mr. London, rather than emerging from the crowd’s enthusiasm. People were for the most part content to sit and listen. Which is fine, particularly because some of the attendees likely had multiple artificial joints, but still. When Shnirele Perele ended, the audience rose and applauded, and about a third of the crowd headed for the exits. “No,” says I to my Best Reader. “If everybody leaves, they won’t come back and play Ale Brider!” But the rabbi stood up at the front and encouraged loud clapping, and we eventually settled into that demanding rhythm that leads to an encore, and they came back and played Ale Brider. I love that song. Some of us sang along on the chorus (“ai yi yi yi yi/ai yi yi yi yi/ai yi yi yi yi/ai yi yi yi yi”) and there was even one fellow out in the aisle shaking his tzitzis.

A couple of other notes: slightly more than half the men had their heads covered, by my estimation. Some were wearing the lovely embroidered full-head Sephardic-style head-coverings that are more like hats than skullcaps, some had what I think of as the observant Jew’s three-inch tightly-crocheted circle, but most of those who opted to cover their heads seemed to have just picked up a yarmulke from the bin outside the sanctuary, and were wearing the standard-issue purple shiny can’t-keep-it-on-your-head kippah. I left my head uncovered, as I usually do if I’m not davening or studying Torah; the sanctuary isn’t Holy Ground or anything, and I’m going to a concert. At my own Temple Beth Bolshoi, a Reform shul, only about half the men keep their head covered even for services, but the Reform movement is in large measure about getting rid of all that superstitious medieval nonsense. This was a Conservative shul, one that calls itself egalitarian, although I only saw one woman with a head covering, and that might well have been decorative rather than ritual.

Up on the bimah, the band also varied in their approach to head covering. The only woman in the band, Lisa Gutkin, had her head uncovered and her hair loose (unless, of course, that wasn’t really her hair). Richie Barshay had his head bare. Paul Morrissett appeared to have a bare head, although he has dark wavy hair, and might have been wearing one of those small yarmulkes on the back of his head. Frank London had a lovely full Sephardic job, with straggly hair loose behind (Unrelated note: the first time I saw Mr. London on stage, I thought “didn’t I go to summer camp with him?” I didn’t, but the feeling only grows stronger every time I look at him). Lorin Sklamberg was wearing a ratty old Panama hat. He looked good in it, though.

One thing that is fun about the band is that most of the players play more than one instrument. Frank London plays trumpet and keyboards, sometimes simultaneously. Paul Morrissett plays bass guitar and tsimbl (or cimbalom, a sort of hammered dulcimer). Matt Darriau plays saxophone, clarinet and kaval (a sort of wooden flute), Jew’s Harp for one song, and brought out what must have been a bass saxophone at one point. Big sucker. Mr. Sklamberg sings, of course, and plays the accordion, guitar and keyboard. Ms. Gutkin just plays the violin and sings. Mr. Barshay, as the drummer, sat in his kit and mostly played the pieces of that, including heavy use of the cymbals, wooden blocks and some rattly things. The klezmorim move around the stage a lot (except Mr. Barshay), sometimes forming a rhythm section on one side, sometimes lining up across the front. Mr. London and Mr. Morrissett occasionally did the thing that horn players do where they share a microphone, which I assume has some effect on the sound but is certainly fun to watch. Also, Mr. London often plays with the technique of moving the end of the trumpet to different distances from the microphone, sometimes swinging his head back and forth and making a sort of Doppler effect. Sometimes one or another player will walk over to the side during a bit they aren’t playing, coming back to get to the microphone just when the band kicks in. Mr. Sklamberg and Ms. Gutkin appeared to be carrying on a conversation (or a running joke) in snatches in the middle of songs. They don’t choreograph, really, but they are fun to watch.

Wow, that’s a long note. One more observation, though: it’s now been a week since I saw the show, and I’m still humming the tunes to myself.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I've had the good fortune to wander art museums with your Best Reader there to draw connections, point out detail and nuance, and generally improve my appreciation and understanding of the art.

I'd like to go to a Klezmatics concert with you so you could do the same for my appreciation and understanding of their music. But recordings aren't the same sort of experience at all as a live performance, and a live performance proceeds at a pace set by the performer. Pauses for explanation would be hard to arrange and would lose much of the flow of the live performance, and I'm quite sure I wouldn't be able to hear you over the music without pauses.

Mmm, Headdy Down!

Paul Morrissett played Scandy for us in DC a few weeks ago, with a member of what has become known, locally, as the Grammy-*nominated* band. (Loretta Kelley, who, with Charlie Pilzer and Andrea Hoag, was nominated for Hambo in the Snow.)

I saw the Klezmatics somewhere around the time that "Jews With Horns" came out; I'd never heard them before, and was thoroughly blown away. "Man With a Hat" killed, but most impressive was "Overture" (which I was very relieved to discover had actually been recorded, since it had the air of a concert-only showpiece).

A friend (and Gentle Reader) bought me Jews with Horns shortly after it came out, I think, which may have been around the time of Fiddler's House. The first time I saw them live was just after The Well, so they didn't do the Overture, which (oddly-enough) seemed to me to be a goofy in-the-studio let's-throw-it-on-the-album thing that it surprises me they actually did in concerts...


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