Grammy-winning band Klezmatics set for Hanukkah celebration Saturday @ GE Theatre
The Klezmatics will celebrate Hanukkah by honoring the Jewish festival of lights and showing that it burns with a double flame: their own and Woody Guthrie’s.
On Saturday at the GE Theatre at Proctors (a week early, but that’s OK), the much-honored band will put a dance-y Eastern European jazz spin on newly discovered Guthrie songs. The Proctors Passport/Eighth Step presentation launches a national tour dubbed “Happy Joyous Hanukkah.”
Onstage, the Klezmatics will provide a simple answer to complex questions:
So, what does Woody Guthrie know from klezmer?
What could an Oklahoma-born, Dust Bowl bard of blue-collar compassion know of Eastern European Jewish party music?
Quite a lot, it turns out, across the decades, continents and traditions.
The folk giant’s second wife was Jewish dancer Marjorie Mazia. Mother of Arlo, Nora and Joady — and a dancer with the Martha Graham Troupe — Mazia was the daughter of Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt.
Inspired by his wife’s family traditions, the prolific Guthrie penned Hanukkah songs including “Hanuka’s Flame,” “Hanuka Gelt,” “Spin Dreydl Spin” and “(Do the) Latke Flip-Flip.” He wrote them in English on Hanukkah themes and with Eastern European musical zip.
Lost for decades, they now fit together with engaging ease.
The compact melodies of klezmer tunes exert a compelling centrifugal force — a get-you-moving, dance-floor spin. Guthrie’s lyrics do the same.
Long after his death, Guthrie still brings buried treasures. In 1998, Chicago rock band Wilco produced British folksinger Billy Bragg’s “Mermaid Avenue” album of similarly long-buried/joyously found Guthrie lyrics. And the Klezmatics won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary World Music Album for their Guthrie (posthumous) collaboration “Wonder Wheel” (2007). The Guthries lived on Mermaid Avenue on Coney Island, near the giant Wonder Wheel. (also the title of Woody Allen’s 2017 film).
“There is nothing sweet about Woody,” novelist John Steinbeck wrote. “But … there is the will of a people to endure and fight against oppression.”
As Guthrie sang the resiliency of America’s Okies and a nation’s cultural unity he tirelessly encouraged, klezmer music proclaims the humanity of the long marginalized Jewish people, many of whom fled Europe for America or Israel.
Over 13 albums the Klezmatics have played a 20-years-long party against oppression. They’ve become to Yiddish European music what the Chieftains were to Irish traditional music or Los Lobos are to Hispanic rock. Flagship navigators of their traditions, they keep specific ethnic musical flames so bright they shine across centuries to reach anyone with open ears.
The Klezmatics’ many awards include a Grammy and other national and international honors, and they’ve topped the Billboard World Music charts several times. They’ve recorded or performed with violinist Itzhak Perlman, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner and Israeli singer Chava Alberstein; and performed at Central Park SummerStage and Carnegie Hall in New York, Pirineos Sur in Spain, Colours of Ostrava in the Czech Republic, Pohoda Festival in Slovakia, Jazzsomer Graz in Austria and the Heimatklänge Festival in Germany.
After playing Proctors on Saturday, the Klezmatics will spin across America to the West Coast.
The Klezmatics are Lorin Sklamberg, lead vocals, accordion, guitar and piano; Frank London, trumpet and keyboards; Paul Morrissett, bass and tsimbl (a box-like dulcimer); Matt Darriau, kaval (a Balkan /Turkish shepherd’s flute), clarinet and saxophone; Lisa Gutkin, violin; and Richie Barshay, drums. Everyone sings.
Showtime is 7:30 p.m. at the GE Theatre (432 State St., Schenectady). General admission is $35; Gold Circle ($65) includes a reception and up-front seating. For information, call 518-346-6204 or visit proctors.org.
Michael Hochanadel is a Nippertown contributor.