Concert Review: The Fourth Annual Main Squeeze Accordion Festival
Forget All Points West or Lolapalooza if it should ever get here again: diehard fans with sufficient stamina (and water supply- it was overcast but pretty hot most of the day over by the river) to hang in through all seven acts on the bill at Pier One on the Hudson were treated to what might be the year’s best single-day outdoor New York music festival. Considering how much of a comeback the small but mighty accordion has made over the years here in the US, there was a sense of defiance and triumph in the air.
The opening act, Musette Explosion is a tremendously good side project from accordionist Will Holshouser and guitarist Matt Munisteri – they do this gig a few times a year when there’s time, and given how much fun everybody onstage was having, it’s something of a surprise they don’t do it more often. Backed by bass saxophonist Scott Robinson, they ran through an alternately haunting and bouncy mix of swing-inflected French and Belgian instrumentals from mostly the 1930s and 40s. The highlight of the set, as usual, was Jo Privat’s eerie La Sorciere (The Witch), Munisteri weaving his way into a ferocious tremolo-picked solo on banjo. A Holshouser original, Chanson Pop built to a lushly plaintive, unaffectedly dramatic Baroque-inflected anthem. This group usually plays with a tuba, but Robinson made a great fit: blazing solos aren’t something you expect from a bass sax, but this guy delivered, particularly on the opening number, Gus Viseur’s swaying Swing Valse.
Mexican norteno band Suspenso del Norte were next, seemingly a project of the Javier family of Queens: father Pablo on guitar and lead vocals with his twelve-year-old son on button accordion along with a second guitar and rhythm section. What they play is essentially Mexican country music, with the same kind of swinging backbeat as what used to come out of Nashville before it became the hometown of lame pop-rock about fifteen years ago. Mixing popular hits along with originals, they connected with the small expat contingent who’d come out to see them, the powerfully built young accordionist supplying effortlessly fast, soulfully bubbling leads.
Hector Del Curto’s Eternal Tango Quintet took the dance vibe into intense, wrenchingly passionate territory. With Del Curto on bandoneon, Gustavo Casenave on piano, Pedro Giraudo on upright bass along with an inspired cellist and violinist, they mixed originals and classics, from a stately, haunting version of the traditional Argentinian tango El Choclo to a fast yet lush take of the Piazzolla classic Libertango. Another Piazzolla composition, Michaelangelo #17 bristled with stormy bandoneon and string flourishes; an original, Emancipacion built suspense with a martial beat and some vivid interplay between piano and bandoneon, a device that Del Curto employed very effectively and evocatively through the set’s brooding ebbs and aching swells.
The Main Squeeze Orchestra were next: being the pet project of Walter Kuhr, proprietor of the Main Squeeze accordion center on Essex St., this is an annual event for the all-female twelve-accordion group. It was a characteristically playful, tongue-in-cheek yet also virtuosic and fascinatingly arranged performance. They got the schlock out of the way first – no matter how much you polish a turd, there’s not much you can do with the Eurythmics or Michael Jackson. “This is a happy song about love,” announced one of the women, taking a turn on vocals on an oompah version of the Joy Division classic Love Will Tear Us Apart. They reinvented Misirlou as a tango and Hava Nagila as a hora, seguing into a happy, upbeat wedding dance. The Kinks’ Demon Alcohol was as amusingly over-the-top as usual; they closed with their deliciously deadpan, full-length version of Bohemian Rhapsody. Maybe if we get lucky they’ll do Freebird next year.
Italian composer/accordionist Roberto Cassan and classical guitarist John Muratore followed with a fascinating, cutting-edge program that spanned from a couple of swinging yet pensive Piazzolla compositions originally written for guitar and flute, to a darkly expansive instrumental by a contemporary Cuban composer, two rousing Italian tarantellas and a long opening number with echoes of both Celtic music and bluesy Hot Tuna-style improvisation.
The big hit of the festival was Liony Parra y la Mega Mafia Tipica, who absolutely slayed with a wildly danceable set of merengue. Parra delivered lightning-fast rivulets on his button accordion, sometimes trading off with the band’s excellent sax player, who matched him note for note on some pretty crazy trills. Along with a harmony singer, they had a rhythm section including congas, cajon and bass drum along with a five-string bassist who stole the show, punching in booming chords to bring a phrase to a crescendo, adding eerie atonal accents, liquid arpeggios and even some laid-back, unpretentious two-handed tapping when things got really sick. They took their time working in with a long intro, just accordion and the drums, then the bass hit a tritone and they went flying. La Mega Mafia Tipica’s merengue is party music, first and foremost: they don’t sing much except on the choruses. This set had a bunch of deliriously hypnotic two-chord jams, bass behind the beat for a fat, seductive groove. They’d shake up the rhythm in places, accordion and sometimes the bass playing three on four for an extended vamp. The last song of the set had a trick ending that took pretty much everybody by surprise: of all the bands on the schedule, only la Mega Mafia Tipica got an encore because nobody wanted the party to stop.
That Slavic Soul Party accordionist Peter Stan and his four-piece backing band weren’t anticlimactic speaks for itself. Stan is something of the Balkan Rick Wakeman, blessed with unearthly speed and fond of playing a lot of notes. This time out he had his son Peter Jr. on chromatic button accordion, playing much like his dad, along with violin, synthesizer usually supplying the basslines and somewhat minimalist drums. By now, it was late, the rain was picking up and everybody except the growing line of dancers in front of the stage seemed pretty exhausted. But it was impossible to leave. Stan plays the kind of modern Balkan dance music you hear at Mehanata, a slick feel made slicker by the artificial bass sound of the synth. But the tunes are relentless and often haunting. He soloed his way from country to country, from Romanian gypsy to klezmer. The band mixed it up, from the happy, upbeat Serbian pop song Nishka Banya to the stately, sweepingly ornate original instrumental Gypsy Soul Fantasy to several edgy dance numbers sung by guest vocalist Bato the Yugo. It was an appropriately bracing way to wind up the evening. Watch this space for upcoming NYC dates by all these bands.