When you think about it, noir cabaret music is basically klezmer. Which is no surprise when you consider that so many of the songwriters in Weimar Germany and further east were Jewish. Berlin-based songwriter Daniel Kahn takes that tradition and updates it, with one eye on the past and the other on a very uncertain future. Kahn’s music transcends any label, Jewish or otherwise: it is cosmopolitan in every sense of the word. His dissidents always have their bags packed and ready go to. They expect to be surveilled, whether by the narc next door with his ear on a glass pressed to the wall, or by a spycam. His songs celebrate defiance and rebellion, with the hope for a better future that anchors all true revolutions. Loaded with puns, multiple levels of meaning and an often crushing irony, one of their most persistent themes is that if we forget the past, we’re doomed to repeat it in all its colossal ugliness. Sunday at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, Kahn and a pickup band consisting of Avi Fox-Rosen on Telecaster, Benjy Fox-Rosen on bass, the Klezmatics’ Richie Barshay on drums and Michael Winograd on clarinet ran through a riveting mix of songs that drew on traditions dating back decades if not centuries, yet which are completely in the here-and-now.
Kahn opened the show with an ominous wash of minor chords from his accordion, slowly launching into the song in Yiddish before switching to English for the chorus. Over a steady, pensive sway, Kahn told the tale of a Depression-era Robin Hood, the King of the Thieves who in the end is “sick from the streets, from the prison walls, but on his gravestone, etched in gold, he should have his story told.” They followed that with The Good Old Bad Old Days, a richly lyrical look at ostalgie, the ambiguous sentimentality for the utter predictability of the Berlin Wall era held by some Germans of a certain age. As he did with many of the songs, Winograd lit it up with a biting, aching clarinet solo, Kahn recounting how now the vendors along the “border that cuts through the town like a surgical scar” are Turkish, the watches they sell actually work, and that there’s now a market where a musician can “keep the esthetic ‘cliches,’ in this market of fleas, selling klezmer cd’s for the good old bad old days.”
“Prepare for your inner emigration,” Kahn warned on a briskly shuffling number that chronicled a couple of girls who decided not to leave after all: a Berlin cabaret dancer who won’t give up her old haunts, then a kibbutznik who falls in love with a Palestinian and tries to win over his family, with dismal results. So, “They thought about leaving to visit her cousin David in Michigan…but David wanted to marry his boyfriend, so they were moving to Berlin,” Kahn deadpanned. Emigration is a state of mind, after all: it may make you absolutely paranoid, but as he hinted, that might be a small price to pay. After that, Kahn put down his accordion for a ukulele and ran through a misty, nocturnally Americana-flavored Woody Guthrie homage, picturing the songwriter away from his Mermaid Avenue home, entertaining the troops while his wife waits anxiously for his return.
The most haunting song of the afternoon was Sunday After the War. Kahn recounted how he’d started writing it after the Iraq war had begum, and that it was unfortunate that he didn’t finish it after the war – and that it’s a song that he needs to keep singing. A slow, harrowing dirge, Kahn offered to “pay for your sorrow if you pay for mine,” ending with the sobering reality that “they’re always recruiting after the war.” From there the band took an unexpected and very successful detour into reggae and then pensive, Pink Floyd-tinged art-rock with a couple of reflections on Zionist and Palestinian nationalist points of view, watching idealistic settlers “coming to Judea with a shovel and a gun.” They closed with a bouncy, snarling klezmer-punk anthem “”written for Occupy Wall Street in Poland sometime in the 1920s.” A sarcastic call to “join the jobless corps…let the yuppies have their wine, bread and water suits us fine,” it was an apt way to close the show. Over the past few years, the Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival has had some absolutely brilliant shows, from Dave Brubeck to Laurie Anderson last year: this one ranks with the most memorable of them.