MP3 Monday: Cotati Accordion Festival

Cotati Accordion FestivalIt’s a big week here at Let’s Polka and one reason is that we’re only a few days away from a weekend of nonstop music and squeezing at the 19th annual Cotati Accordion Festival. The trip to Cotati is always one of the highlights of our year; here are a few of the artists we’re looking forward to hearing this weekend:

Frank Marocco is a true accordion legend, known for his technical mastery of classical and jazz accordion, as well as his skills as an arranger and composer. Now based in Los Angeles, Frank is probably the most recorded accordionist in the world, having played on hundreds of movie soundtracks, television scores, and commercial jingles. He even played on the Beach Boys’ classic album Pet Sounds in 1966.

One thing I love about Cotati is that it attracts not just local artists, but bands from across the country. This year, Copper Box makes the trip from Oshkosh, WI, bringing its unique blend of rock, polka, blues, and zydeco. The band features the husband-and-wife team of Danny (accordion) and Michelle (guitar, sax) Jerabek.

Known for her jazzy blues vocal style and her button accordion, Tara Linda‘s latest album features 1930’s ballads, cumbia, dance-hall rancheras, cry-in-your beer country duets, and even some Johnny Cash. With Luna Nueva, Tara Linda sings in the “dueto” style with Gilbert Reyes on a collection of songs dedicated to the life and legend of Lydia Mendoza.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Those Darn Accordions and the band is celebrating with a 20-city tour that kicks off this week. On Saturday in Cotati, TDA will be joined onstage by several former members, including Big Lou (also performing at the festival with her Polka Casserole), Bill Schwartz, Ron Muriera, Tom Torriglia (also performing with Bella Ciao), and Art Peterson.

And there are so many more: Jason Webley, Los Texmaniacs, Ginny Mac, Culann’s Hounds… the list goes on and on. It should be a fantastic weekend for accordion lovers and we’ll be sure to take lots of photos (and videos) along the way. If you’re headed to the festival, let us know and we’ll be sure to keep an eye out for you!

MP3 Monday: Pezzettino

Pezzettino: LionClassically trained on piano, Margaret Stutt of Pezzettino picked up her father’s accordion in 2008 and has been writing songs nonstop ever since. Alternating between accordion and piano, her music is moody and restless while her lyrics are intensely personal. She’s also a textbook example of the do-it-yourself independent musician in the digital age, using tools like Twitter to connect with her audience and even filming custom videos on YouTube for fans who support her music. After recording her debut album solo on a laptop, she’s been slowly adding to her band and released her second album, Lion, in April.

MP3 Monday: Bowerbirds

BowerbirdsYou would expect a band living and writing music off the grid in an Airstream trailer in the woods outside of Raleigh, NC, to play some lo-fi acoustic folk. But that’s just a tiny part of what Bowerbirds are all about. The duo of Phil Moore (guitar) and Beth Tacular (accordion) won over critics with their beautiful 2007 debut, Hymns for a Dark Horse and have just released their follow-up, Upper Air. Sparse, subtle arrangements incorporating violin, percussion, and more set the stage for beguiling harmonies and unabashedly pastoral lyrics. Currently touring the US, you can find most of their upcoming shows on our accordion events calendar.

MP3 Monday: Bellowhead

BellowheadIn 2004, English folk duo Spiers and Boden set out to gather a collection of musicians well-versed in many styles — big band, soul, jazz, classical — but who would still play traditional English dance tunes and songs. The result was Bellowhead, an 11-piece English-folk-meets-brass-band ensemble that has racked up an impressive collection of awards and rave reviews in its first five years. Their live performances in particular — which are designed to get the entire crowd up and dancing — have earned them a reputation as one of Britain’s best live acts, regardless of genre. Trombone, saxophone and trumpet slug it out with melodeon (button accordion), fiddle, and bouzouki in a bold, high-energy mix that often sounds more like New Orleans than London. The track below comes from their first album, Burlesque, and features the accordion playing of band founder John Spiers.

MP3 Monday: Wendy McNeill

We have our Canadian friends at Accordion Noir to thank for turning us on to today’s artist — Edmonton-born singer/accordionist Wendy McNeill. Now based in Sweden, McNeill blends intimate, narrative folk with dreamy, melancholy cabaret. Her latest album, A Dreamer’s Guide to Hardcore Living, keeps her accordion and voice at the center, but adds swelling, orchestral arrangements to the mix. Above all, though, McNeill is a natural storyteller, sharing strange and expressive tales of faith, temptation, shape-shifting coyotes, and more. Take a listen and I think you’ll see why she’s rapidly becoming one of our favorite accordion-toting artists.

And as an added bonus, here’s the clever video for Wendy’s “Ask Me No Questions”, shot in one continuous take:

I also highly recommend a pair of videos filmed by Pocket Music during Wendy’s trip to São Paolo, Brazil. The one where she strolls through the open-air market while people stop and dance along to her music is fantastic.

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MP3 Monday: A Hawk and a Hacksaw

A Hawk and a Hacksaw: DelivranceAll too often, a musician will immerse themselves in a culture only to create work that’s a pale imitation of what inspired them in the first place. Not so for Albuquerque duo A Hawk and a Hacksaw — accordionist Jeremy Barnes and violinist Heather Trost — whose adventures in Eastern Europe have continued to produce inspired, passionate music that defies easy categorization. In 2007, the duo moved to Budapest to eat, breathe, and play with local musicians; the result is their new album, and most vibrant work to date, Délivrance. It’s a high-spirited stew where the mariachi and American folk of the duo’s homeland melds with the sounds of Hungary, Romania, Turkey, Greece, and more. The album’s opener, “Foni Tu Argile”, is a barn-burner in any language.

As an added bonus — let’s call it “MP3/Video Monday” — here’s a beautiful video for the song “The Man Who Sold His Beard” off Délivrance:

MP3 Monday: Polkastra

PolkastraWhen a band is named Polkastra and their album is called Polkalypse Now, you know it’s going to be fun. But don’t let song titles like “Ludwig van Polka” or “Four String Polkanini” fool you; there’s some very serious musicianship behind Polkastra’s silliness.

Led by renowned violin virtuoso Lara St. John, this eclectic septet includes Israeli composer Ronn Yedidia on accordion as well as the New York Metropolitan Opera’s contrabassoonist. They set out to make a polka record just for fun, but soon found themselves exploring polka’s ties with folk, jazz, and classical music. It’s too bad that the polka Grammy is no more because Polkalypse Now is a blast — a joyous, energetic of celebration of polka in its many forms — and already one of my favorite albums of the year (polka or otherwise). You can find the digital album on iTunes now, while the physical CD will be released in August.

MP3 Monday: Gilberto Monteiro

Gilberto MonteiroLongtime readers may remember us writing about Renato Borghetti, the excellent accordionist from the Rio Grande do Sul region of Brazil. Today, we have a track from an artist who has influenced Borghetti heavily — fellow gaucho accordionist/composer Gilberto Monteiro. Monteiro isn’t as well known outside of Brazil as Borghetti, but his talents are no less impressive; it has been said he is of the few accordionists who impressed Astor Piazzolla.

MP3 Monday: Los Texmaniacs

Los Texmaniacs: Borders y BailesIn conjunto music, the 12-string bajo sexto is the accordion’s best friend: a constant companion who handles the bass and backbeat, allowing the accordion player to focus on right-hand melody (and often ignore the left-hand bass buttons entirely). As conjunto music’s premier bajo sexto player, Max Baca of Los Texmaniacs has become the guy every accordionist wants to play with.

Baca started playing bass in his father’s band at the age of eight and formed his own band when he was just twelve. He eventually went on to play with Flaco Jiménez and then the Texas Tornados, the popular cross-over group that included Jiménez, Doug Sahm, Freddy Fender, and Augie Meyers. Baca loved the Tornados’ rock-and-roll sound, but was drawn to the traditional conjunto music of his roots as well. In 1997 he created Los Texmaniacs and went to work fusing blues and rock-and-roll influences with the traditional conjunto pairing of button accordion and bajo sexto.

In recognition of the way Los Texmaniacs has pushed the envelope with conjunto, Smithsonian Folkways is releasing Los Texmaniacs’ Borders y Bailes this month as part of their ongoing Tradiciones/Traditions series showcasing music from Latin American traditions. Los Texmaniacs will also perform at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington next week.

The track below (“Redova”) is a bouncy instrumental duet between Baca’s bajo sexto and David Farias’ accordion. The redova rose to popularity in Europe in the mid-1800s and was imported to Mexico shortly thereafter; its sprightly one-two-three step resembles a fast waltz. You can still hear it amongst the polkas, schottisches, cumbias, and huapangos at a typical conjunto dance.

MP3 Monday: Vagabond Opera

Vagabond Opera: The Zeitgeist Beckons European cabaret, Balkan belly-dance, neo-Classical opera… it’s all in a day’s work for the Portland, Oregon-based six-piece, Vagabond Opera. Mixing Eastern European folk with creative, theatrical performances, Vagabond Opera is one of the few bands that can put on a thrilling show while still delivering the musical goods. And they’re not kidding around about the “Opera” part, either — the group’s lineup includes classically trained tenor and soprano vocals (singing in over a dozen languages), not to mention accordion, cello, stand-up bass, musical saw, and more. This track comes from their just-released third album, The Zeitgeist Beckons:

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