The dancing crowd at last night’s second annual Borscht Ball at Paperbox in Bushwick got to watch singer Svetlana Shmulyian – who has a gig with her bittersweetly torchy, cosmopolitan swing jazz band the Delancey Five coming up at Lucille’s on June 24 at 8 – sing coyly quirky old Soviet pop songs from the 60s in her native tongue, with a knowing happy-hour gleam in her eye.
They got to hear klezmer firebrand Daniel Kahn – who’s got a gig tonight at Joe’s Pub at 9:30 – unveil an obscure old Russian tune he’d never played before, which he’d just translated on the way down from Utica with fellow singer Psoy Korolenko. The gist of it was, “If the devil won’t take me, how about your bed.” Kahn had matched his English rhyme scheme to the original, quite a feat.
They got to pogo and linedance and twirl around the room as the Klezmatics aired out a fiery, characteristically ambitious series of new songs from their long-awaited forthcoming album. They got to see a parade of some of the world’s most sought-after talent in Jewish roots music – irrepressible Litvakus clarinetist/singer Dmitri Zisl Slepvovitch and charismatic Golem bandleader Annette Ezekiel Kogan among them – beat a path on and off the stage as the music shifted from defiantly joyous, to wounded angst, to full-throttle klezmer punk.
The festival’s raison d’etre is to provide a snapshot of the many different flavors of klezmer punk from around the world. If you think that’s a little esoteric, consider that there are hundreds of bands who would have fit this bill. If the Klezmatics weren’t the first, they opened the floodgates and have since inspired more than a generation of musicians. Playing their thirtieth anniversary show, they drew on sounds as disparate as Romanian, Turkish, Ukrainian and Catalan folk traditions while adding their signature firepower and jazz sophistication. Trumpeter Frank London played his usual, alternately crystalline and ferociously elephantine trumpet with his right hand while doing catchy arpeggios and comping chords on organ with his left. Matt Darriau ripped through careening postbop jazz on tenor sax and spun off spirals on clarinet over the stampeding, sometimes vaudevillian pulse of drummer Richie Barshay and bassist Paul Morrissett while frontman/accordionist Lorin Sklamberg sang in Yiddish, Russian and English. At the end of their sizzling opening set, he told the crowd that they’d be back, and by the end they pretty much all were, joining the members of Opa in careening versions of well-loved classics like Limonchiki and Bei Mir Bist Du Shein.
Brooklyn supergroup Svetlana and the Eastern Blokhedz – Shmulyian backed by bandleader Wade Ripka on guitar, his Greek Judas bandmates Quince Marcum on horn and vocals and Nick Cudahy on bass, Isaak Mills on guitar, sax and glockenspiel, Choban Elektrik‘s Jordan Shapiro and Las Rubias Del Norte‘s Allyssa Lamb on keys, and Slavic Soul Party‘s Chris Stromquist on drums – kept the dancers on their feet, opening and eventually closing with psychedelic garage pop that sounded straight out of France, 1969. Who says the Russians ever outgrew their French fixation, anyway? From there Shmulyian led them nimbly and warmly through a Russian pop counterpart to Dancin’ in the Rain, to nostalgic salutes to motherhood and romance and eventually a Soviet equivalent of “Celebrate good times, c’mon!” True to form, their deadpan version of the Ventures’ Cold War instrumental classic Spudnik was irresistibly funny in context.
Making their U.S. debut, eclectic Russian band Opa headlined and offered an unstoppably kinetic take on many of the directions klezmer continues to expand into. With tenor saxophone, trumpet, trombone, guitar, bass and drums going full force, they opened with a catchy old Russian riff that they built into straight-ahead oldschool disco. From there the band romped back and forth through time, vocally and instrumentally, flavored with acidic no wave guitar, Talking Heads funk and maybe a little Gang of Four. As the special guests made their way to the stage until there wasn’t much room left up there, the group took a detour into the tropics with some rocksteady, a couple of snaky klezmer cumbia mashups, a bit of Balkan reggae, hints of salsa and then a rousing return to the classics at the end of four nonstop hours of music. By then most of the oldsters – an impressive number, considering how deep in the ‘Shweck the venue is – had gone home, leaving the floor to the kids, many of them couples, who’d spent pretty much the entire time on their feet. By then it was as if the music itself had taken on a personality of its own, overjoyed to be brought back from death’s door in the nick of time.