Beyond the Pale

at Skirball Cultural Center, Feb. 4, 2010

By Tom Cheyney

BTP_Photo_by_Bonnie_Perkinson.jpg
Photo by Bonnie Perkinson

Calling Beyond the Pale a "klezmer band' would unfairly pigeonhole the Toronto-based group's big-eared take on Eastern European, Balkan, and other musics. But then, that characterization would be true of much of the klezmorim new wave, restless reinventors who honor the tradition while pushing the boundaries farther afield. While BTP doesn't overtly nod to rock, hip-hop, or kleztronica, the combo still stretches out in ways beguiling and inclusive, both live and on their latest recording, Postcards (Borealis Records).

The version of BTP at the Skirball was pared down to a quintet and featured a different accordionist than on Postcards. Percussionist/violinist Bogdan Djukic was unable to accompany the group for its California mini-tour. Milos Popovic, credited as playing squeezebox on the album, was replaced by fellow Serbian expat Dejan Badnjar, who joined the core four on stage-mandolinist/cofounder Eric Stein, bassist/cofounder Bret Higgins, violinist Aleksandar Gajic, and clarinetist Martin van de Ven.

Although the thwack of Djukic's hand drums might have thickened the groove, the band did not lack for firepower. Performing a wide swath of the new album as well as tracks from their previous work, the fivesome's dynamic comfort zone ran from the downtempo melancholic, sparse and spacious, to full-gallop horas and tempestuous Roma gypsy tunes-sometimes within the same song.

BTP could have rested on their reinventions of traditional fare, such as the tweaked bulgar Kamenetzer and the jaunty bouncing Anthem, which found van de Ven's laughing licorice-stick tangling with Gajic's taunting violin, as Badnjar rippled up and down the keyboard. Trading four, fives, and sevens or riding the melody in unison, pushing the tempo or reining it in, pumping up the volume or bringing it down to a whisper--theirs was an instrumental conversation reveling in the moment.

As entertaining as their take on the "old stuff" was-including a pair of Mozart (as in Amadeus) pieces thoroughly stripped down and successfully retrofitted as chamber music gone deliciously askew-the group's originals (and they all write) revealed a striking genre-busting creativity.

A prime example was Stein's Split Decision, a title chosen because, as he told the audience, he couldn't make up his mind if the song should be performed by BTP or his rock group. The intricately mysterioso composition twisted and turned toward jazz, Americana, and a tinge of Latin while never uncoupling from the band's core Eastern aesthetic.

Whether filling up the bucket of race-memory tears, playfully putting the shtetl to the metal, or crafting luminous soundtracks of as-yet unmade films, Beyond the Pale's rewarding performance asked and answered the question, is there life after klezmer?

Tom Cheyney has been writing about the global and roots music scenes in Los Angeles and around the world since fax machines were high tech.