There's no lack of love for the accordion. From lilting French ditties to rowdy German polka, sober klezmer cryalongs to obstreperous mariachi blowouts -- Italian jingles, Dutch clog stomps, cajun zydeco, Scottish ceilidhs, from the circus to the chapel, the accordion has always had a home among the much of the world's folk music and tradition, seeming to define -- musically, at least -- the peculiar features unique to each culture. Part-piano, part-synthesizer, part-arachnid, the accordion may be one of the most versatile musicmakers around. In its relatively short history of just under two centuries, it has managed to define an impressive amount of styles and inspired a huge range of awkward dance moves.
And yet, ever since modern man first wielded the guitar, the accordion has had to take second stage as drinking culture's brawny, boisterous instrument of choice. In recent years especially, perhaps ever since Weird Al Yankovich began strutting his squeezebox skills, or perhaps when '80s ubernerd icon, Urkel, first strapped one on on TV's Family Matters, our pop culture notion of the accordionist has been all braces, bad hair, and multicolored suspenders. Not the stuff of a self-respecting rock idol.
For decades, it's been as if the accordion itself had slunk away into the shadows. There it learned some new chops, sulked over its self-imposed exile, got a few tattoos on the side, and -- now that Yankovich's career has gained a cult following and new credibility -- the squeezebox is back.
Just off of Broadway, in the small nook of downtown Oakland that is becoming home to an ever-larger collection of art galleries, cafes, bars, and strange, half-constructed condo units, 21 Grand is a gallery-cum-performance space that favors the experimental and subversively populist. It also shares a space with Smythe's Accordion Center, appropriately enough, the area's longstanding accordion dealer and repair shop. Kimric Smythe, the shop's owner -- we're later told -- is actually responsible for suggesting the Monsters of Accordion tour in the first place.
The space is completely packed for tonight's show. In fact, every show on the tour -- each of which features four solo accordionists and special guest -- has sold out.
For the most part, the crowd has left their clogs and lederhosen at home. (There are plenty of suspenders, however, as well as mohawks and Siouxsie Sioux-style vintagewear.) Geoff Berner starts things off. Dressed in a what looks like a mortician's tailored black and white tux with a cueball head and wry smile, teetering a little as he stands, Berner lurches into his first song. "Volcano God," a sullen song to the tune of the traditional Jewish hymn, "Oseh Shalom:"
"Volcano God, Volcano God,
Which one of my treasures will you take from me today?
Volcano God, Volcano God,
Praise you with my screams as I watch them fall away."
Well. That's one way to start a party. In the silence that followed, Berner told us that he is devoted to developing new Jewish Canadian drinking songs. "It's a popular genre," he drawled, setting the stage for the rest of the set. Cut deep with sardonic humor and irreverent wit, and punctuated with Berner's own brand of darkly humorous, drunken banter, each song plays on Jewish theological concepts and classic klezmer/cantorial arrangements, from "Whiskey Rabbi" to "Lucky Goddamn Jew." My favorite -- and probably that of most of the audience -- was the call and response version of "Weep, Bride, Weep," a wedding song of sorts, to the horrors of marriage and men. By the end, the audience was laughing so hard that Berner need only waft his fingers and the whole room responded at each refrain, "Weeeeep, Bride, Weeeeep..."
However long the intermission was, it was not long enough to prevent Duckmandu's hockey-game warm-up rendition of Devo's "Girl U Want" to come crashing into the end of Berner's solemn set. To go from comic, funereal Yiddish ballads to accordion recreations of '80s pop hits was a little jarring. In purple jacket, blue pants, and constantly switching between a series of Donald Duck-billed caps (which obscured a pink and blue faux-hawk), Duckmandu moved between rich accordionized versions of Tex Ritter's "(I Got Spurs That) Jingle Jangle Jingle," AC/DC's "Highway to Hell," and Boston's "More Than a Feeling" with nary a trace of irony. But his coup d'grace had to be a nearly spot-on rendition of California punk band The Dead Kennedys' "Moon Over Marin." It takes a calloused throat to mimic singer Jello Biafra's nasal falsetto, and nimble fingers to follow the chords of the song's guitar solo. In fact, I later learned, Duckmandu has an entire album dedicated to Dead Kennedy's covers, titled Fresh Duck for Rotting Accordionists.
Corn Mo's bio describes him as "bearing a striking resemblance to Meat Loaf," which seemed a little off, given that he is more strikingly close to Sammy Hagar at the end of his heroic period. Still, mounting the stage in a full white and black tux, capped with a mane of shaggy brown hair, and strapped with a white-flecked sqeezebox, he did have a meaty stage presence. And if "like a bat of hell," can be an understatement, well, it was. Mo opened up each song with a long, winding, breathless, hilarious story from his childhood ("the time Jason Kline got peed on by the other Jason..."). The ballad that followed and chronicled each story was belted out with flair that could've embarrassed the amateur rock stylings of Tenacious D. A foot-operated cymbal was pounded for extra emphasis where the narrative demanded it, and Mo was unafraid of striking a Liberace pose or swirling his hair in circles when the tempo reached climax. He ended with the crowd-pleasing, heavy metal headslammer, "Hava Nagila Monster," which tied things together nicely.
In the intermission, we were invited to watch Kimric Smythe -- owner of the accordion shop next door -- repair an ailing accordion. Somehow, it didn't seem to fit the rollicking nature of the rest of the night, and some of the audience began to stretch and head to the back for another drink. We probably should've known. As Smythe set up the patient and headed backstage for his toolbox, the accordion exploded in a loud burst, sending strips of squeezebox and what looked like little feathers out into the stunned audience.
Turns out, along with being an expert repairman and the progenitor of the Monsters of Accordion tour, Smythe is also a member of the San Francisco pyrotechnic art ensemble Survival Research Labs, and one of the original firestarters at Burning Man. The accordion was blown up, he assured us, with an airbag, "for our protection."
The flurries set the stage for Jason Webley, tonight's top bill, and the main organizer of the tour. From the beginning, he made it clear that his set was going to be an audience-assisted affair. Sneering and stomping a heavy rhythm to his songs, with a gruff, lumberjack's voice and a sailor's swagger, Webley belted them out, stopping mid-song to teach his audience the upcoming lyrics. For the finale, he invited the night's performers to come up onstage and encouraged his audience to abandon their seats and head to the front. Nearly everyone did. He launched into an exercise in "instant drunkeness," encouraging everyone to hold their index finger aloft and spin in circles while watching it, until the sober were stumbling into their neighbors. The already drunk went straight to the floor. And, as neighbors helped neighbors back to their bearings, the four accordion monsters launched into the night's last endearing singalong:
If the glass is full drink up, drink up!
This may be the last time we see this cup.
If God wanted us sober
He'd knock the glass over
So while it is full we drink up.
The Monsters of Accordion 2007 tour is over.