Wednesday night at Joe’s Pub, Inna Barmash led an excellent band (clarinet, bass and cello plus the brilliant Shoko Nagai on accordion and piano) through a set of frequently spellbindinding, emotionally rich new arrangements of old Jewish folk tunes from the Ukraine and points further west. Fronting Romashka, her Russian Romany string band, Barmash is all about spine-tingling technique and big crescendos. In this somewhat more low-key performance, Barmash built a warmly personable rapport with the audience, sharing her passion and erudite knowledge of obscure treasures brought to light by both Dmitri Shostakovich as well as legendary pre-Holocaust archivist Moishe Beregovsky.
Barmash was quick to remind the crowd that these songs weren’t originally concert music: they were sung unaccompanied, mostly by women who were all alone or with young children. Appropriately, she saved her most tender vocal for an a-cappella lullaby, which she delivered sweet and low as if she was singing to her own kids (come to think of it, that’s exactly how she might have practiced it before the show).The rest of songs ran the gamut from dark and heavy and unselfconsciously deep, to jaunty and lighthearted. Since this was the first day of Hannukah, Barmash came prepared. After lighting the menorah onstage, making an offering and getting a big “Amen” from the crowd, she led the band through a bittersweetly edgy, historically vivid Hannukah song that didn’t neglect to mention Jews fighting for their rights. Sing Me a Song in Yiddish translated loosely as “I’m gonna sing this so everybody gets it and that way we won’t fight;” the surreal Over the Attic lamented a long-lost love, and by implication, someone who might just as likely have been taken away by the Cossacks as having left under his own power.
One of Barmash’s most plaintive moments of the night was when she sang an anxiously expectant number about a mother looking forward to the day when she and her children can be reunited with her husband, who’s gone of to work in America. Barmash’s irrepressible husband, Ljova Zhurbin came up and seemingly did the impossible, playing viola with a broken hand (he’d had a bicycle accident, ironically, on the way to Roosevelt Hospital, to play for patients there). Making the best of a bad situation (not to worry, he’ll be fine in a month or so), he played along on his open strings while the cellist aired out viola voicings in his upper registers
And as good as the band was – an absolutely sizzling, rapidfire clarinet solo was a late highlight, while Nagai’s lush, often haunting washes of chords and playfully prowling inside-the-piano work dominated the earlier part of the evening – the most wondrous instrument on the stage was Barmash’s voice. She sang in character, varying her approach depending on the lyric. She struck a jazzy, deviously fingersnapping chanteuse pose on a slyly petulant number titled something along the lines of “don’t you DARE go out with anybody else,” and cut loose joyously on the final song of the set, a gambling song for dreydl-spinners. But it was the quieter material that was the most stunning, possibly most vividly on a sad , characteristically minor-key tale of two lovers watching each other from across the river, contemplating how soom they might (or might not) see each other. As nuanced a singer as Barmash is in the studio – her new album Yiddish Love Songs and Lullabies, many of which she played this evening – is fantastic, but live is where her heart is, so watching her inhabit these (mostly) troubled characters made a shlep out in the cold rain to hear it worth it many times over.