It’s been more than half a century since the Ventures recorded the first klezmer surf rock hit: Hava Nagila. Wrapping up their first US tour with a deliriously fun show at the Austrian Cultural Center earlier this week, Vienna instrumentalists the Nifty’s took the idea of making electric rock out of Jewish folk and jazz themes to new levels of noir menace, surfy fun and punk rock intensity.
Their opening number, an original, sounded like Big Lazy with two guitars – that good. Lead guitarist Fabian Pollack played lingeringly Lynchian reverbtoned lines on his Fender Jazzmaster, mingling with the similarly reverberating, spacious clang and twang of Michael Bruckner, who played a mysterious hollowbody model. Bassist Dominik Grunbuhel strolled tersely behind them with a dry, crisp tone, but by the end of the show he was swooping and diving all over the place. At one point, he was playing furious tremolo chords with his knuckles while the guitarists did the same, but with their picks: it’s a miracle he didn’t leave the stage a bloody mess.
Like Big Lazy’s Yuval Lion, drummer Gottfried Schneurl loves counterintuitive accents, odd syncopation and uses every piece of his kit, but with more of a punk edge. At one point, he emerged from behind it to bang on hardware and mic stands and eventually the strings of the bass, an old Dick Dale trope that surf musicians have never been able to resist.
But the Nifty’s aren’t a straight-up surf band. Niffty was the nickname that Naftule Brandwein, who was sort of the Sidney Bechet of klezmer clarinet, gave himself. One of the great paradigm-shifters in the history of Jewish jazz, he would no doubt approve of where the Nifty’s take the tradition. That’s what Brandwein’s great-nephew, who was in the crowd, said after the show, and he ought to know.
The band opened with a couple of moodily surfed-up horas – two-part dance numbers that began slowly and uneasily and picked up steam in the second half – and closed with a reggae tune, encoring with a rapidfire bulgar from Odessa with a stunning cold ending. In between, they mixed up originals, new arrangements of brooding minor-key traditional melodies as well as reinvented versions of tunes from Brandwein’s catalog.
Drei, a serpentine Pollack original and the title track of the band’s latest album Nifty’s No. 3, was more of a diptych. Nifty’s Texas Massacre, from the band’s second album Takeshi Express, was a cinematic, punk-influenced four-part psychedelic punk mini-suite that set the stage for much of the rest of the night, as the band sped up again and again, past the point where the rhythm had come full circle. There was a persistent, slinky noir bolero quality to much of the rest of the material, reminding how much of a confluence of latin and Jewish music the noir esthetic is. Let’s hope these guys make it back here soon.
The next show at the Austrian Cultural Center is on Nov 7 at 7:30 PM with cellist Friedrich Kleinhapl and pianist Andreas Woyke playing Beethoven sonatas plus works by Schnittke, Friedrich Gulda and Shostakovich. Admission is free; there’s a reception to follow; a RSVP is required.