You know how people say “We were dancing in the aisles” even though they really weren’t? I’m not one of those guys. When I say “We were dancing in the aisles” it means that by the end of the show, many in the audience (including me) were dancing around in a big grapevine-hora chain.
We did this because that is what people actually do at a Klezmatics concert during “Ale Brider”, the group’s signature song. But we also danced because, for a few minutes, we were all in love with each other, life in general, and music. That’s what the Klezmatics do.
Frank London—up front on trumpet and keyboards—is the anarchy-loving hype man, the Flavor Flav to singer Lorin Sklamberg’s more spiritual Chuck D. The group is tight; they can turn on a dime; their solos often approach the ecstatic, and Sklamberg’s tenor could tear down the walls of Jericho.
The crowd was not entirely Jewish (but mostly so), not entirely middle-aged (but mostly so), and not entirely ground down by the freezing Wisconsin weather (but mostly so). They would have been happy to hear the band crank out their brand of fun, folked-up klezmer all night. But the Klezmatics were intent on messing with the format—that is, after all, the only way to move ahead. When the group originally formed 20 years ago, their goal was to combine traditional Jewish music with contemporary and postmodern aesthetics. That mission has long since been accomplished, and they’ve expanded their focus into other, more specific projects, such as recordings and arrangements of Woody Guthrie’s recently discovered “Jewish Songs” and their collaborations with a number of other artists.
For the last 18 months or so, they have been touring with African American “Jewish gospel” singer Joshua Nelson. The audience may have known, but that doesn’t mean they were expecting Nelson to take the stage dressed in a lovely black-velvet robe with gold filigree, sit down at the piano, and start pounding out “Walk in Jerusalem”. His voice is as big as all outdoors, and his personality is just as huge. His Little Richard-style glissandos were outsized, massive, and showy, and the band obviously loves having him there. The audience, however, needed a bit of convincing.
After this song, there seemed to be some confusion as to where things were heading. Following some band charades, Nelson left, and violinist/vocalist Lisa Gutkin led the band in a new arrangement of Woody Guthrie’s “Gonna Get Through This World”. Gutkin has a fine voice, and the tune was ambitiously scored. But, the piece seemed strangely placed, like someone had scrambled the set list. Another atmospheric piece (in Aramaic!) followed.
Then Nelson came back to do “Didn’t It Rain”, and the concert really swung into gear. Their time together on tour has beefed up the interactions between Nelson and the rest of the group, and has increased Nelson’s confidence, too: he cracked everyone up by yelling out “Lemme see if I can teach y’all to clap.” This piece also featured some truly horrific dancing by Gutkin and Sklamberg; I can’t remember when I’ve seen professional musicians dance quite so poorly. The band then disappeared, except for London, who accompanied Nelson on organ through “Let My People Go”—which featured some of the biggest vocal histrionics in the history of Wisconsin.
Something was slightly off with Sklamberg. He seemed enervated early on, like he was fighting a bug or mad at someone. When the band returned to the stage, he was clad in a huge garment that looked like a dashiki designed by aboriginal artists. Later, during some of Nelson pieces, Sklamberg crouched at the back on the drum riser. But, to his credit, he always brought his voice - the night’s highlight came near the end with his lengthy free duet with Nelson on the mystical “Shnirele, Perele,” a journey into the ether which turned into a near-metallic stomp, harder than on the record and more beautiful.
The band was able to skip back and forth between gospel tunes and songs in Hebrew until there was really no difference between the two—which is the point of the project with Nelson to begin with. I’m really not sure there was anything the Klezmatics couldn’t do that night—except play “Smoke on the Water” as requested by some smart-ass in the audience. (London replied, “We’re more of an ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ type of band.”) Nelson even managed to turn “When the Saints Come Marchin’ In”—which, he said, his rabbi always rejected as “too goyishe”—into a Hebrew spiritual.
Hearing this project on the record Brother Moses Smote the Water is one thing, but seeing it live is another. My kids boogied to it, my wife can still remember the setlist, and by the end even my middle-aged in-laws were blown away.