Klezmer bands converge on Toad’s

At Toad’s Place Sunday afternoon, the stage was lit green and pink, the subwoofers set to low.

And if the booty cam were still in operation, it would have caught an intercollegiate festival of tushes dancing to the Klez Dispensers in town from Princeton. Or the Yarmulkazi from Brown.

It was Klezmerpalooza 2002, the fourth installment of an annual convention of Eastern European Jewish folk music bands from colleges around New England. Founded at Toad’s in 1999 by Yale Klezmer Band alumnus Jeffrey Perlman ’01, the festival traveled to Brown and Princeton before making its way back to New Haven this year and back to a crowd of over 150 toe-tapping Yiddish music enthusiasts from Yale and around Connecticut.

Seven bands played on the same stage that will host The Saw Doctors tomorrow and Psychedelic Breakfast in March. The audience, the majority of which had white hair and yarmulkes to cover up bald spots, sat in a semicircle that reached almost to the edges of the room and crept up against the glass display of Budweiser memorabilia on the back wall.

Perlman, an applied physics major now living with his parents on Long Island, N.Y., was at the back, presiding over his brainchild and fiddling with sound equipment in front of a sign advertising “Killarney’s Red Lager: Brewed with the finest Irish Malts.”

“It’s just amazing, what this has become,” he said.

“We thought about having this in Battell Chapel for a while, but that seemed to be in the wrong vein. We wanted [the location] to be accessible to Yalies and the public and to have room for people to dance. “

And dance they did: together in traditional Jewish horahs to the fast songs, in pairs to the slower ones, and alone, snapping their fingers in front of their seats.

In his opening address, a cowboy-hatted Joshua Wolf ’02, this year’s event coordinator, said the festival is for “community and continuity,” to showcase “the college students of today with a tradition that goes back centuries and centuries.”

Whether new to the genre or dedicated listeners, many in the audience and among the musicians said they were just in town for an afternoon of good music at 300 York St.

Students at the performance seemed not to fit the standard klezmer-aficionado mold, but almost all said they are longtime fans of the music, whose modern form combines its traditional Yiddish folk roots with big band, swing, jazz, funk, rock and theater music.

Provided with kosher pretzels and chips by the Slifka Center for Jewish Life, those in attendance ordered sodas from the front bar without having to confront bouncers and pass off fake IDs, and bought $10 T-shirts from a card table by the door.

“I grew up listening to the Klezmatics, and my father was a flamenco guitar player,” said Joey Weisenberg, a Columbia sophomore who plays guitar and mandolin for the university’s klezmer outfit, watching from behind the T-shirt stand. “So this just seemed right.”

Spectators too — many of them self-proclaimed gentiles — seemed to be getting their Semitic groove on.

“I just love klezmer music,” Silas Meredith ’04 said. “Am I Jewish? Not even close. But I swear, if you’re not a klezmer fan when you get here, you will be by the end of the day.”

Clifton Jackness ’02 nodded his head in full agreement. “This beats Saturday night dance party at Toad’s any time,” he added.

For some, the event required a little adjustment. Barback Rafael Pizana ’04 found the contrast between the event and its locale more than a little jarring as he unloaded beer into a refrigerator.

“This is my first Klezmerpalooza,” he said. “I had no idea Toad’s did this sort of stuff, and, honestly, I’m pretty shocked. I guess, really, it just takes some getting used to.”

For others, the venue provided more serious obstacles, and the debate over noise-level thundered through the room for the first half hour of the show like Jamiroquai through a synagogue.

Wolf said he’d received a number of complaints from the more elderly members of the audience that the music was just too loud.

“It’s been turned down to the lowest levels,” he said. “We anticipated this problem, but there’s not much we can do about it.”

But Denise Goetsch, a Mount Holyoke senior and piccolo player for their band, said, like many other participants, that she liked the bar atmosphere. “I love the big beefy sound and the theatrical lighting,” she said. “The louder the better as far as I’m concerned.”

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