Carnival of sound
Bella's Bartok is an eclectic circus of klezmer punk and bohemian folk
By EMILY REILY
Special to the Union Leader | February 15. 2017 1:02PM
Klezmer punk-pop band Bella's Bartok, based in Northampton, Mass., mashes up vocals, drums, trumpet, banjo, accordion, mandolin, guitar and trombone in driving beats and high-energy performances. (Isaac Nines Photography)
“It’s like a sparkly musical with action, dancing, comedy, physical audience interaction,” says Asher Putnam.
The band’s leader, main songwriter and vocalist describes a typical Bella’s Bartok show as being as much “performance art” as concert.
“It’s more like a circus,” he says, but “instead of animals, there’s songs.”
The group, based out of Western Massachusetts, will bring its eclectic variety show to The Stone Church in Newmarket for a show with the reggae and hip hop group the Alchemystics Saturday night.
No labels, please
Guitarist and clarinetist Chris Kerrigan says listeners shouldn’t try to classify what type of music they play; the band is more of a feeling than anything else.
“It’s just what comes out of you. It always comes out in a string of adjectives. It’s circus punk, it’s Bohemian vaudevillian dance music,” Kerrigan says.
“Ramona,” for example, is a bright and brisk folk song with touches of brass and a whole lot of spunk. “The Fiddler and the Devil” leans toward the klezmer-punk-ska side of things, aided by a jumpy trumpet line and commanding percussion.
Alongside Putnam and Kerrigan, Bella’s Bartok also includes bassist and vocalist Dan Niederhauser, Saera Kochanski on accordion and mandolin, Amory Drennan on trombone, banjo and vocals, percussionist and trumpeter Crisco, and Gershon Rosen on trumpet.
The members share a vast musical heritage that includes jazz and classical, along with punk and Eastern European music.
“I think all of us are in the boat that we listen to everything,” Kerrigan says. “I think it’s more of the music people in the band grew up on. Asher, with his Hungarian grandparents, grew up on Eastern European music. My songs will always be influenced by the sweaty, dirty punk-rock club, and then Dan’s songs ... he has a degree in classical music. And his songs are always influenced by Beethoven.”
Bella’s Bartok, which has been around nearly a decade, also could be compared with Boston institutions like Dropkick Murphys or Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and Putnam acknowledges that both have influenced the band.
“Just from growing up in Massachusetts, we were kind of inundated with that third-wave ska movement,” Putnam says.
And how does klezmer, a traditional and undefinable folk music that originated with Jewish people in Eastern Europe, fit in with such variety? Putnam says the band highlights that genre’s punk aesthetic and its strong roots in protest.
“The melodies are definitely inspired ... from the older protest music, which is a lot of what klezmer was back in the day — try(ing) to send a message in a subtle way with (what) the powers that be or establishment won’t pick up, but your audience does,” says Putnam.
Kerrigan says everyone in the band takes part in songwriting, but he especially admires Putnam’s skills as getting straight to the heart of a song.
“He’s very good at what he does. He can take these complicated ideas and boil them down to a single phrase, which really speaks to the nature of the idea. He can turn it into one beautiful line, like, ‘Oh yeah, I feel that, too. I get what you mean, man, and also that line is stuck in my head,’” Kerrigan says. “When our lyrics are at their best, it’s usually Asher.”
Putnam says the way they strike a balance between protest music and being the “fun band” comes from their delivery.
“We can broach a serious subject with the audience in a way they can absorb it, in a way they can process it on the spot, in a glitter-filled party situation,” says Putnam.
One tune, called “Party Song,” refers to the serious issue of date rape, while “Strange Ones” addresses people’s perceptions of others who aren’t quite like them.
“(It’s) about acceptance of people who think a little differently than you and might be labeled ‘crazy,’ but I have a different view of the world,” says Putnam.
Bella’s Bartok hopes their music gives others a safe space and a creative outlet.
“Our role as musicians is to create a space for people to be inspired and then take that inspiration and apply it to the world around them, which I guess is all you can do as a musician,” says Kerrigan. “We could rant and rave on stage about whatever politics we wanted to, but we probably wouldn’t be as remembered as well as just having a good time.”
Though their music and carefree aesthetic was borne of their college background, Putnam says young and old can find a place at a Bella’s Bartok show.
“People from age 3 to 83 usually come hang out. It really depends on the gig. There’s the punk bar crowd and then there’s like the art-school music kid. There’s a mix, and then there’s like, grandparents,” Putnam says.
Kerrigan points to the band’s consistent, laid back, street-wise busker style of performance as key to their popularity.
“That’s how we started and that’s what we’ll always think of ourselves as. Even if we’re playing a stadium someday, I think we’ll always think of ourselves as ‘that band from the alleyway,’” Kerrigan says.
It makes me feel very young every day,” he continues. “I feel like I’m a 5-year-old kid every day.”