Polka Grammy Preview: Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones

Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones: Batteries Not IncludedToday, we wrap up our look at the “Best Polka Album” nominees with another Chicago polka legend, Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones. We profiled the Blazonczyks last month, discussing the challenges that Eddie Jr. has faced since taking the reigns from his father.

Despite those challenges, the Versatones have remained one polka’s top bands. Formed in 1963 by Eddie Sr., the six-piece Versatones helped modernize polka by incorporating rock, country/western, Cajun, and Tex-Mex influences. Now with “Junior” handling the vocals and playing concertina, the band continues to promote polka through a rigorous schedule of touring and recording.

Batteries Not Included is the 18th Grammy-nominated album for Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones; they won once, back in 1987, but shared that award with (guess who?) Jimmy Sturr. If you enjoy uptempo, Chicago-style polka, this album won’t disappoint. Even traditional waltzes like “Chlopak” and “In the Oak Grove” are played at a pretty fast clip. And goofy numbers like “The Wife You Save” and “My Misery” show off Blazonczyk’s sense of humor.

Polka Grammy Preview: Jimmy Sturr

Jimmy Sturr and His Orchestra: Polka in ParadiseYou can’t talk about polka and the Grammys without mentioning Jimmy Sturr. Since the Grammy for “Best Polka Album” was first awarded in 1986, Sturr has won an astounding 15 out of the 20 awards given. While this has engendered jealousy among a few in the polka community, Sturr had no apologies during our exclusive interview back in October:

“I know there are people who are always knocking me; for instance, I read in the paper the other day where someone said ‘Jimmy Sturr should step down.’ (laughs) I will when the New York Yankees do.”

There’s no argument, though, when it comes to his work as a polka promoter; few have tried harder to bring polka to a wider audience than Jimmy Sturr. He has recorded over 100 albums, plays over 150 dates a year (including non-polka venues like Farm-Aid and the Grand Ole Opry), and has a regular show on RFD-TV. In addition to his own excellent band, he has recruited an impressive list of guest artists to record with him. Names like Willie Nelson, Alison Krauss, the Oak Ridge Boys, Arlo Guthrie, and many more.

After a pair of rock-oriented polka albums (Rock ‘n’ Polka and Shake, Rattle, and Polka), Jimmy Sturr and His Orchestra get back to basics with Polka in Paradise. And, as usual, Sturr brings some guests along for the ride: the “Polish Prince”, Bobby Vinton, guests on the title track and The Jordanaires contribute vocal harmonies throughout.

In a big band like Sturr’s, the accordion can sometimes get lost in the shuffle. That’s not the case, though, on this Polka in Paradise track featuring dueling accordion solos by Steve Swiader and Al Piatkowski:

Polka Grammy Preview: Walter Ostanek and Fred Ziwich

Walter Ostanek and Fred Ziwich: Good Friends Good MusicWhile Frankie Yankovic reigned as “America’s Polka King,” another polka monarch was flourishing north of the border. Walter Ostanek, “Canada’s Polka King,” grew up idolizing Yankovic and eventually became a close friend and frequent collaborator (for instance, Ostanek played accordion on Yankovic’s first Tonight Show appearance). A three-time Grammy winner with numerous recording, radio, and TV credits to his name, Ostanek is best known for playing Cleveland-style polka with a country/western twang.

Fred Ziwich may not be royalty, but he’s been the recipient of multiple honors from the National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame, including “Musician of the Year”, “Button Box Musician of the Year”, and “Recording of the Year.” A classically trained clarinetist, Ziwich honed his accordion style in the ethnic halls and polka clubs around Cleveland. On Sunday, he could become the first Cleveland-area polka musician to win a Grammy since Yankovic himself.

The songs on Good Friends Good Music are divided between Ostanek (playing with his band) and Ziwich (playing with his “International Sound Machine”). The late Gaylord Klancnik, Joey Miskulin, and Igor Podpecan & Zlati Zvoki from Slovenia also make appearances. No matter who’s playing, though, the emphasis is on Cleveland/Slovenian-style polka music and the accordion is always front and center. Which explains why not one, but two accordion tuners (Don Krance and Jerry Balash) are credited in the liner notes!

Polka Grammy Preview: Lenny Gomulka

Lenny Gomulka and Chicago Push: As Sweet As CandyLenny Gomulka is no stranger to the Grammys, having racked up 12 nominations (but no wins) since the award’s creation in 1986. A talented multi-instrumentalist (trumpet, clarinet, and sax), Gomulka grew up playing with the biggest names in Chicago polka: Marion Lush, Li’l Wally, and Eddie Blazonczyk.

In 1980, Gomulka left Blazonczyk’s Versatones and started his own band, Chicago Push. Their style is heavily influenced by the Polish-style polka music that Gomulka grew up with, but with modern arrangements and plenty of Gomulka-penned originals. After moving to New England in 1990, Gomulka wasted no time spreading the polka gospel there; he even wrote the official Massachusetts state polka (“Say Hello To Someone In Massachusetts”).

As Sweet as Candy is a textbook example of the “Push style”: tight horns, driving rhythms, and enough bellows shaking to make you think there’s an earthquake. The album alternates between traditional waltzes and obereks (some, like “Hop Ciuk Oberek”, are sung in Polish) and lively originals like “We’re Gonna Jam” and “She’s Got Nothin’ On You.” Nick Koryluk and Matthew Rosinski handle the concertina and accordion duties admirably.

But will it be enough to give Lenny Gomulka and Chicago Push their first Grammy? We’ll find out on Sunday.

Polka Grammy Preview: LynnMarie

Party Dress by LynnMarie and the BoxhoundsThe Grammy Awards are Sunday, so this week we’re looking at the five nominees for “Best Polka Album.”

The first (and only) woman ever to be nominated in the polka category, LynnMarie Rink grew up in a Slovenian community in Cleveland, listening to her father play accordion at the Slovenian National Home. Now based in Nashville, LynnMarie aims to bring polkas to a new generation, playing high-energy shows that fuse traditional polka with modern rock and country rhythms. And, as her album cover shows, she’s easily the sexiest nominee in this year’s field (sorry Mr. Sturr).

Party Dress is LynnMarie’s fourth Grammy-nominated album and, like her previous efforts, it mixes originals with covers ranging from “Blue Moon” to The Who’s “Squeeze Box.” The Carol Lee Singers (of Grand Ole Opry fame) lend their voices to a cover of jazz hit “Happy Feet” and Ray Benson (of Asleep at the Wheel) guests on LynnMarie’s original “Polka Till the Cows Come Home.” Inspired by her recent, highly-successful tour of Slovenia, the album also includes three tracks influenced by the current direction of polka music in Europe (think Atomik Harmonik, but without the babes in hard-hats).

Party Dress is an incredibly fun, bouncy album that’s both a little bit Nashville and a little bit Cleveland. LynnMarie’s spunky personality shines throughout, and she’s one heck of a button-box player, too. With her energy and drive, I can’t imagine a better spokeswoman for the next generation of polka.

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New Decemberists EP at iTunes

A quick note for Decemberists fans: the band has a new EP, Live from SoHo, available only through iTunes. It’s a recording of their six-song performance last November at the Apple Store in SoHo, New York City. And because it’s a stripped-down acoustic show, Jenny Conlee’s accordion comes through loud and clear on every track. (Just as it always should.)

Book Review: Magnifico by Victoria Miles

Magnifico by Victoria MilesMagnifico is a heartwarming tale of Mariangela, the 11-year-old daughter of Italian immigrants living in Canada in 1939. Mariangela wants to learn piano (she envies her cousin’s piano) but her family can not afford one. Instead, Nonna surprises her with an accordion. Mariangela, disappointed, doesn’t try very hard at first. Her accordion teacher, Gioseff, tries everything he can to inspire her: playing records, telling stories, protecting her from the neighborhood bully, but nothing seems to work. Throughout the story we see how her family and friends persevere in difficult situations, and through these situations, Mariangela figures out what she must do to succeed.

This book is an excellent story of immigrant life, perseverance, and how music can bring people together. It is recommended for children in grades 3-6, but I would recommend it for accordion lovers of all ages.

Accordion Tribe Hits the Road

Remember the Justice League — the superhero team of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and others, who joined forces to fight evil? Well, I like to think of Accordion Tribe as a sort of musical Justice League: five of the world’s most creative accordionists, teaming up to make inspiring music together. Just like the comic books, but without the costumes, and with a much better soundtrack.

Recognized individually as masters of classical, jazz, folk and avant-garde music, the Accordion Tribe consists of Guy Klucevsek (USA), Maria Kalaniemi (Finland), Bratko Bibic (Slovenia), Lars Hollmer (Sweden), and Otto Lechner (Austria). Formed in 1996 for a brief concert tour, the Tribe has since released three albums, toured Europe extensively, and were the subject of a documentary film called Accordion Tribe — Music Travels. Few musical “supergroups” truly mesh, but after one listen it’s clear that the Tribe members have incredible chemistry.

Their latest album, Lunghorn Twist, was released in April, and features more of the eclectic and distinctive work that has become the Tribe’s hallmark. They’ve just started a European tour (including dates in Switzerland, Germany, France, and Spain) that runs through November. Listen below to “Heimo”, one of my favorite songs from Lunghorn Twist. Written by Maria Kalaniemi, it’s a dynamic tune that opens quietly and builds to some dramatic unison playing and lively soloing. Just an amazing, all-accordion track.

Lemony Snicket: A Series of Accordion Events

The End is here. No, really. I’m talking about the book, The End — the final installment in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, released last Friday (the 13th). I’m not sure what happens, but judging from the previous twelve books, I’m pretty sure it’s dreadful, miserable, and just altogether unpleasant.

But there’s even more unfortunate news: earlier in the week, the Gothic Archies released The Tragic Treasury, an album of songs devoted to each of the 13 books in the series. The Gothic Archies are really just singer/songwriter Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields, with help from Lemony Snicket’s “spokesperson”, Daniel Handler, on accordion.

Handler has played as an “adjunct accordionist” for the Magnetic Fields on a number of occasions, including in concert and on their epic 69 Love Songs. So when Handler did his first book tour, he immediately thought of his accordion, and Merritt:

“I needed to come up with a presentation to keep as many as 100 children quiet for 45 minutes — and the accordion is very loud. I thought I could play the accordion and sing, so I asked Stephin to write something. In fact, I have the distinct memory of going to the ATM and withdrawing enough cash and paying him directly upon commission of the song.”

You can hear the Gothic Archies play that song (“Scream and Run Away”) live during their current tour with Lemony Snicket. Though if you go, be warned: Mr. Snicket doesn’t always turn up at these events…

The Crane Wife Takes Flight

The Crane Wife album coverA favorite of disgruntled English majors, indie rock critics, and chimney sweeps everywhere, the Decemberists just put out their fourth album, The Crane Wife. It’s a big milestone for the band as it marks their major-label debut on Capitol Records. Fortunately, they haven’t forsaken their unique musical landscapes and erudite storytelling for drum machines and songs about “My Humps.”

If anything, The Crane Wife is even more ambitious than previous Decemberists albums. Inspired by a Japanese folk tale, it runs the gamut from four-minute pop songs (“O Valencia!”) to twelve-minute prog rock epics exploring murder, abduction, and rape (“The Island”). And, of course, Jenny Conlee’s accordion makes a few appearances, most notably on “Summersong” and “Sons and Daughters”. It took a couple listens to win me over, but I’m really loving this album.

The Decemberists kick off their Fall tour — The Rout of the Patagons Tour 2006 — tomorrow night in Portland and will be in San Francisco and Los Angeles later this week. We saw them a couple years ago (with one of our favorite, non-accordion bands, the Long Winters) and they were fantastic, so grab tickets if you can.

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