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Of Borscht, Flaubert and Hungarian Mustache Wax

Berkshire-grown gypsy-punk-klezmer-jazz band Bella’s Bartok ignore the hyphens and rock out with their accordions out

by Jeremy D. Goodwin on May 11, 2011 · 1 comment

Bella’s Bartok started out as a party and became a band—albeit, one that comes with an automatic party pre-installed. Since their scrappy origins, busking in downtown Great Barrington, Mass., in the summer of 2008, the lineup of Bella’s Bartok has fluctuated in size from 10 members to a dozen or more. Their sound has expanded from a core of gypsy-punk covers into an original repertoire rooted in a frenetic, klezmer-inflected sensibility that embraces flavors of space rock, circus rock, a touch of country, and hot jazz as well.

Perhaps it’s best to simply ditch the hyphens and call it “borschtcore.”

Dixieland in the Balkans (In the Berkshires): Bella's Bartock. Photo by William Wright

Following the late-2010 release of their first album, At the Kingmakers Ball, and ever-surging momentum on the live circuit of western New England, there’s the sense that this deliciously chaotic band—with several members about to graduate college and find themselves with some extra free time—could be on the verge of that all-important transition from “weekend warrior” status to full-time rock and rollers.

On a recent Saturday night, they’ve just played their nicest venue yet: the Colonial Theatre in downtown Pittsfield. They were the openers on a long, multi-band bill, but because of the band’s size, they’ve been assigned the most generous dressing room.

It’s exactly what you want the dressing room of a nice theater to look like. There are two long counters in front of mirrors lined by little lightbulbs. The walls are covered with posters from past shows at the venue. There’s a little speaker for announcements from the stage manager. And in the corner, a tall guy with a well-waxed mustache and green cardigan is singing a mid-tempo waltz with a dude on accordion wearing black-framed glasses and salmon-colored pants. The set of soul covers played by the closing band, onstage a few yards outside the closed dressing room door, is audible through the walls. Bartok’s trumpet player picks up a tambourine, its bassist starts pounding out the tempo on a trumpet case, and its trombonist, a nascent engineer who also pens complex, multi-part compositions for the band, has turned a wheeled coat rack into a jungle gym. He’s dangling from it, upside-down, and disaster seems imminent.

One gets the sense that the hour or so Bella’s Bartok spend onstage on a given night, churning out their high-energy, Dixieland-in-the-Balkans dance music, is the only context in which this crew can achieve something akin to single-minded focus.

“It’s a dance band at its core,” observes bassist Steve Torres. “It’s a house-party band that got too big, and now we don’t know what to do.”

The band started to coalesce in 2008 around two college friends, James Bill and Asher Putnam, who each shared the relative indignity of housing in freshman dorms at the University of Massachussetts at Amherst after having already lived in the real world for a few years after high school, both starting college in their early 20s. (The band’s members are all, more or less, in their early-to-mid 20s.) Bill now plays electric guitar for Bartok, and the mustachioed Putnam—who endorses Hungarian moustache wax to achieve gravity-defying curls—sings and plays acoustic. They each write songs for the band, joined by acrobatic trombone wielder Sean Klaiber.

Charismatic vocalist and accordion player Heather Fisch joined early on (later leaving the band), and Bella’s Bartok suddenly started playing everywhere, whether on a walkway off of the parking lot of Great Barrington’s Triplex Cinema, an open-air Earth Day festival thrown by that town’s co-op grocery (following the Berkshires’ own family-folk hero, David Grover), or house parties in the nearby village of Housatonic. The setlist included covers like Golem’s “Warsaw Is Kehlm” and traditional klezmer numbers.

“We learned songs because we figured it would be easier than trying to make them up every time we got together,” recalls trumpeter Amory Drennan. “We didn’t expect this band to last past the summer. I don’t think we even intended it to be a band.”

The thing is, they earned an immediate and boisterous following. What should have been a glorious mess turned out to just be kind of glorious. Their highly kinetic sound is indeed all about dancing, but the group don’t settle for woozy riffs and a backbeat. The horn players (plus Chris Kerrigan on clarinet and bass clarinet) execute cascading melodies; the rhythm section of Torres and drummer Mark Schilling go from circular circus rhythms to a Johnny Cash-like shuffle to a deep, jazz-informed place; and group vocals from Putnam, Bill and Vashti Poor (currently the band’s only woman) manage to harmonize above it all. Monte Weber also contributes violin, and Putnam’s younger brother, Jesse, joined last year primarily as a rhythm guitarist, though he’s recently added accordion to his portfolio.

They believe they could comfortably ensure a string of modest but steady bookings into the foreseeable future if they took a turn toward traditional Eastern European music and ditched the punk-edged blend they’ve created.

“Let’s deal with the elephant that’s walking around the room,” Bill says at one point, when it’s suggested that Bella’s Bartok could have a lucrative future if it toned down its musical eccentricity. “If we [just] play klezmer and play it in the Berkshires, we’d get hired a lot.”

“We could quit our day jobs,” Schilling chimes in.

Though that is indeed the shared goal, no one seems to want to pursue it through that method. There are too many musical influences that need to be crammed in there, somewhere.

“If we were online dating,” says Poor in reference to their various musical interests, “we’d have never met.”

Putnam notes that “gypsy punk is fun, but none of us are gypsies.” And though they can be loud and even abrasive (Torres is quick to make inflammatory declarations about punk’s impurity post-1977), no one is terribly punk, either. The mutton-chopped bassist adds, perhaps with a hint of disappointment, “We are not a hipster band.”

“The best thing about Bella’s Bartok for me is that we’re all the biggest fucking nerds. None of us are too cool for school, none of us are . . .” Torres declares, pausing several seconds to find the right word before landing simply on “cool.” Later, as if seeking to prove the point, Putnam notes that he is wearing his green, “going-out” cardigan. “I have a brown one for home,” he clarifies dryly.

In the span of about 90 minutes, Jesse Putnam calls on his acoustic guitar to summon versions of Danzig’s “Mother,” a slowed-down twist on Bella’s Bartok’s “Strigoi Waltz,” and (on accordion) a subconsciously emerging riff that leads him to an old French song. (Later that night, at a Pittsfield bar, he manages to sing along to not only the chorus, but some of the verses, of A-Ha’s “Take On Me.” When Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” comes on, there’s a small riot as everyone starts vigorously popping out; rather than playing air guitar, Poor pantomimes having enormous shoulder pads under her blazer.)

The younger Putnam, an intellectually curious fellow given to casual classical references and prone to read Flaubert at the bar, is excited because the band recently received their “first hater,” a griping sourpuss who complained in an online forum about Bartok’s presence on the bill that night at the Colonial.

“That’s great! It means we’re getting somewhere,” he exclaims.

Poor, who along with Asher Putnam tends to handle bookings and media requests, notes that they “recently started to use the ‘no’ word for the first time. Until recently, we hadn’t made any plans to control our destiny. Every gig we got, somebody invited us.”

The trouble is, now that they’ve made great inroads in the Berkshires and the neighboring Pioneer Valley (including Northampton, the live-music mecca of Western Massachusetts), perhaps saturating those markets, they run the risk of cementing the prefix “local” to the band.

“At this point we could stay local heroes and probably do OK [just] playing locally,” observes Schiller, but no one seems interested in that.

Poor and Bill are booked to join in the evening-closing jam on Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready.” They head for the stage, and though standing amid a dozen or more musicians, they each get solo spots during the song. Asher Putnam watches from the wings, appearing impressed and pleased at the whole situation.

Perhaps it’s the grandiose setting of the gig, or even the long interview, but on this night the members of Bella’s Bartok seem particularly concerned with what their future might bring. Back at the bar, someone asks Asher when they’ll be able to quit their day jobs. He looks into the middle distance with a contemplative gaze, and softly says one word.