Concert Review: The Klezmatics @ Proctors GE Theater, 12/02/2023

When Proctors Passport Series presenter Mona Golub and Eighth Step Director Margie Rosenkranz learned both wanted to present the Klezmatics at Proctors GE Theatre, they simply did – cooperating to co-promote music built to celebrate peace. The veteran band charmed a large, happy audience that flowed into the theater past a free latkes station to the left and the customary Eighth Step cakes, cookies, coffee, tea and CDs on the right.

Inside, as trumpeter Frank London explained in wry understatement, the Klezmatics played “both kinds of music, fast and slow” – the former for party-style fun, the latter for centuries-deep poignancy.

Photo by Rudy Lu

Folk fans of the Step enjoyed the veteran band’s expertise and total investment in the music, which also fulfilled the Passport Series international mission: sharing how the most specifically ethnic music becomes universal in the virtuoso hands of those who mean it from their souls. The Klezmatics took sonic and social heirloom music ancestors brought from eastern European shtetls to America, and they charmed everybody.

Woody Guthrie built the thematic bridge between elders who silently mouthed the most folkloric songs’ Yiddish words and those who’d never heard klezmer before Saturday. The Klezmatics put often ancient melodies to recently rediscovered Hannukah-themed lyrics Woody wrote on Coney Island in a blended family. His second wife was Marjorie Mazia, dancer daughter of Yiddish poet Aliza Rosenblatt.

The Klezmatics opened with Woody’s mid-tempo jokily titled “Honeyky,” its English lyrics framed in spunky riffs that proved they’re jazz heads as well as folklorists. 

Photo by Rudy Lu

Minimalist bassist Paul Morrissett and maximalist drummer Richie Barshay set up a throb and a clatter, clarinetist Matt Darriau and trumpeter London darted quick short runs into their flow or took over the place with free-ranging solos while violinist Lisa Gutkin and leader-and main singer Lorin Sklamberg played longer passages on top. Sklamberg switched off between piano and a small accordion all night, as Morrissett sometimes played a boxy dulcimer, London played keyboard and trumpet sometimes at once and thunderous piano on one late tune, and Darriau played alto sax and a Middle Eastern straight flute, like a recorder or tin whistle but at an angle.

Well warmed up, they played “Gilad and Ziv’s” at a near-frantic rush so hyper you’d hurt yourself dancing to it. Here, jazz combo style, they took solos, then came together at the end.

Announcing they’d play more than Woody’s “Hanukkah hoe-downs,” Sklamberg set up “Zol Shoyn” as the work of a Vilna klezmer eminence than sang it in Yiddish, with scrambling solos on alto sax and trumpet and a wordless vocal coda.

Photo by Rudy Lu

“Kermishi in Ades,”as Sklamberg announced after relocating to the piano, told a Ukrainian gangster story, and it felt bluegrass-y in its episodic story-telling, starring Gutkin’s violin. After goofing gently on the similarly named anarchic rock band Plasmatics, “Davenen” also featured Gutkin in lyrical fine form. Morrissett played dulcimer in an early high point of melodic and rhythmic power.

They closed the first set with four of Woody’s Hanukkah hoe-downs. After gently chiding the Oklahoma-born Guthrie for getting the Hanukkah spirit right, but the details all wrong, “Hanukkah Bell” delivered that spirit in quiet assurance – “You won’t be sad any more,” that brought sighs from the crowd.

They revved the crowd with claps and whistles in the faster “Hanukkah Tree,” then “Spin Dreydl Spin” spun even faster and the big, spunky “Hanukkah Gelt” closed the set on an exuberant note.

The second set relied less on Woody’s words than much older messages and melodies. “Geler Fink” hit like an Irish dance medley crossed with a cartoon chase scene. Then the mood turned somber in “Vitsyn,” Sklamberg translating its lyrics citing human tragedy as “tears in the stars of heaven’s crown.” However, this story song started from a jazzy intro with call-and-response vocals, then stacked flashy solos and crowd clapping on the one.

Photo by Rudy Lu

A drum solo – in stereo! thanks front of house engineer! – launched the centrifugal middle-eastern sounding “Kats Un Moyz” with a thrilling alto sax break; then “Shtetl M.O.” began in a similarly contained waltz that expanded through tempo shifts into a fast foray to a tricky stop and go coda.

While the second set peaked with “Hannukah’s Flame,” a dazzler of lovely, quiet dignity, “Fisherlid” also went for poignancy and found it in a big way, mourning lost dreams but achieving a resolution through tuneful uplift. 

Maybe the jazziest moments all night came in the wave-like dramatic “Shnirele Perele,” expanding from London’s wistful solo intro into a Pharaoh Sanders-like saxophone explosion and powerful massed vocal. 

Sklamberg urged the crowd to sing along in “Happy Joyous Hannukah,” assuring “It’s in English!” It was; but it also danced around like an Irish polka.

And everybody chanted “Oy! Oy! Oy!” In the encore.

The Songs

  • Honeyky
  • Gilad and Ziv’s
  • Zol Shoyn
  • Kermeshl in Ades
  • Davenen
  • Hanukah Bell
  • Hanukah Tree
  • Spin Dreydl Spin
  • Hanukkah Gelt
  • Geler Fink
  • Vitsyn
  • Kats Un Moyz
  • Shtetl M.O.
  • Hanukkah’s Flame
  • Fishelid
  • Shnirele Perele
  • Happy Joyous
  • Oy Oy Oy
1 Comment
  1. Margo Singer says

    Michael, thanks for a terrific review and also the song list – much appreciated. Rudy, great photos as usual. The music was wonderful and it a perfect setting. A great to have them start their tour with us,

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