Live music is about the music, of course, and the musicians, but it’s also about the setting. We all have our favorite place to hear music, whether it’s a booth at the Dakota or a bar stool at the Artists’ Quarter, the main floor at First Ave. or a corner table at a coffee shop.
Last Saturday night, the setting for Accordion-O-Rama was a Carnegie library in Zumbrota turned art gallery/concert hall, where nearly 100 people gathered to hear four accordionists from the Twin Cities.
Accordion-O-Rama, an annual event with a tongue-in-cheek name, was conceived in 2004 by Dan Newton, a.k.a. Daddy Squeeze, and Marie Marvin, who runs Crossings at Carnegie. The idea was to hold a miniature accordion festival, showcasing different musicians and musical styles, in a town where people were likely to show up, a stronghold of Polish and German heritage and polka.
It would be a crime to have an accordion festival without at least one polka, and Accordion-O-Rama obliges. But it also features jazz, pop, country, Eastern European, Western swing, Cajun, Brazilian, klezmer, blues, French musette and, this year at least, a song about vampires. Turns out you can play almost anything on a squeezebox. I know from personal experience. As a tormented teen alone in her room, I played Orff’s “Carmina Burana” using sheet music purloined from my high school choir.
This year’s performers were Newton, whose fine Café Accordion Orchestra is a fixture on our local music scene (hear them every Tuesday at the Loring Pasta Bar); the brilliant and fearless young accordionist Patrick Harison (his group Patty and the Buttons currently plays Sunday brunches at the Aster Café); Simone Perrin, a theater artist and chanteuse who performs with Kevin Kling; and Denny Malmberg, former South High music teacher whose regular gig (usually on keyboard) is at Fireside Pizza in Richfield with singer Charmin Michelle.
This was Malmberg’s debut at Accordion-O-Rama. He was following in the much-loved footsteps of his father, accordionist Larry Malmberg, who passed away last year. Many people in the audience had known Larry and several had been his students.
Crossings at Carnegie is a small place — it was the smallest of the more than 2,000 public libraries Andrew Carnegie built in the United States, back when the very rich built public libraries — and the metal folding chairs were edge-to-edge. When the doors opened, people poured through, but politely. Seats were reserved in the front row for an elderly man in lederhosen and Marvin’s mother, who had baked cookies for intermission.
Paintings lined the upper walls; jewelry and pottery, cards and purses and candles filled the original wooden bookcases below. Star-shaped lights hung in the window facing the street. Overhead were mobiles made of twigs, colorful kites, and a wire angel that slowly twirled in the breeze from the ceiling fan. Chairs snugged up against shelves filled with necklaces, ornaments and glass perfume bottles. Lucky this wasn’t a light-fingered crowd.
The four accordionists played together — Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love with You,” “On the Bayou,” and “San Antonio Rose,” a lively “Beer Barrel Polka.” They took turns — Newton’s wistful “Songe d’Automne,” Harison’s exotic Hungarian wedding tunes, Simone’s powerful interpretation of a poem by King called “Crows,” Malmberg’s gorgeous versions of John Pizzarelli’s “Da Vinci’s Eyes” and Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely.” They traded solos. It was spontaneous, unrehearsed and joyous.
Some people think the accordion is a joke or passé; had they been sitting where I was, they would know how it can paint pictures and stir emotions. We heard mischievous playing, banter and quotes (a few bars of “Lady of Spain” for a man who had requested that song), and serious, virtuosic playing. Harison’s instrument is a chromatic accordion, with buttons on both sides (as opposed to piano-like keys on the right) and switches on the top he changes with his chin. On a tune he described as “a demented zombie polka,” his fingers were a blur.
There were moments of raw beauty (Perrin’s “La Vie en Rose”), ribald humor (Newton’s songs about jelly rolls and fiddlers), high camp (Perrin’s take on “These Boots Are Made for Walking”), and hilarity (her song about a vampire unlucky in love). While Newton and Harison are accordionists who sing, Perrin is a singer who plays the accordion as her own accompaniment, as if it were a guitar. Her voice is strong and distinctive, ranging from a sharp-edged alto to a high, quavering wail. She is not the accordionist the others are, but she’s a compelling performer, charismatic and free.
From the moment the big double library doors swung open until the last folding chair was snapped shut and carried away, Accordion-O-Rama seemed sweet and dreamy, like a sepia-tinged photograph. Time scrolled slowly backward, then stood still. The music and the setting together made magic.
It was a balmy night, one of those rare gifts of late October, so the doors stayed open throughout the concert. Near the end, I imagined walking by outside, a stranger passing through this small Minnesota town, pausing to hear the sounds of accordions and laughter, singing and applause drifting out into the moonlit air.
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