Monday, October 27, 2008

Slobovian Army

I was a high school polka star once. Last Saturday, I was again.

Most people start out their music career playing rock, punk, folk, or rapping in the cafeteria. I was highly susceptible to the power of the polka. My friend Paul Mora was forced into accordion lessons at an early age by his German-Swiss parents. Our drummer Greg Hodowansky had an accordion-wielding uncle who once led our Grade 3 class in Ukranian dance lessons. The taunt of the two-step was calling my name.

And so it was in the fall of 1987 that the three of us—along with Glen Johnstone on bass clarinet, and later Brendan Wall on tenor saxophone—started the Slobovian Army. [The term Slobovian was a sad attempt at the time to be a euphemistically “correct” alternative to the Polish jokes of the early 80s, as perpetrated by many morning rock radio DJs.]

Polkas were not only kitschy, funny and so phenomenally uncool, but they were also a perfect outlet for a teenage boy’s musical aggression—after all, they’re best enjoyed at breakneck speed, and feature pretty much the same rhythm as speed metal, shit-kickin’ country, or ska music. Inspired by the busking antics of the Shuffle Demons and a desire to take the piss out of pop music’s sacred cows of the day—George Michael, U2, Depeche Mode, etc.—we decided to bring polka to the people.

The concept started as a Christmas project, and eventually branched out into the aforementioned covers, as well as songs we genuinely liked (the Pogues’ “Fiesta,” the Beatles’ “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da,” the Peter Gunn theme). We busked at Cedarbrae Mall for Christmas 1988, and raised the ire of many a shopkeeper who asked us to “turn down the saxophones.” We rented ourselves out as a “birthday service” at school, where for $5 (!) we would embarrass your friend by barging into their homeroom and serenading them with a polka “Happy Birthday” and the Beatles’ “Birthday.” We actually got invited to play other schools’ Talent Nights. We played our own Talent Night, and dared to play Billy Idol’s “Mony Mony,” which at the time prompted some rather profane crowd participation—we intended that to happen; we did not intend the teacher in charge of Talent Night to almost lose his job over the incident. (Again, sorry Mr. Jansen.)

Our music teacher, John Anderson, was our biggest fan. He loved the fact that we took music outside of his classroom (which was actually a portable) and got everyone else excited by it—and the more ridiculous, the better. He was a great man and a great teacher who knew exactly when to be a hard-ass, and when to gleefully encourage the expected teenage subversion.

Mr. Anderson’s sudden death this past September shook me more than I would ever have expected it to. It reminded me of how many life lessons I learned under his baton, and how music brought me out of my shell and the single biggest reason why I have so many fond memories of high school. I knew that I had wanted to get the Slobovian Army back together for this fall’s high school reunion; now we all knew we had to. I hadn’t seen Glen in ten years; I hadn’t seen Greg since high school. Paul insists that he hadn’t played accordion in four years; I refuse to believe him, as it all came back to him within seconds.

So last Saturday, we showed up at the school with our instruments and immediately set up and started to play—this time to classmates who were extra enthusiastic, thanks to the fact that the gym was licensed for the occasion. Were we any good? As we said to each other in rehearsal, “Well, we’re as good as we ever were.” Let’s just say that there wasn’t a lot of progression in the 20 years that have passed, although we do now have the confidence to drop a waltz into the middle of a medley, for whatever that’s worth.

What follows is my high school diary entries marking our first ever gigs: busking in the school foyer, and then appearing at a school assembly the next day.

Monday, December 14, 1987

The Slobovian Army is progressing nicely. [Note: there is no mention of the band in the diary until this entry.] We had an excellent rehearsal today at lunch. We plan to perform on Wednesday. The big news is that Glen is really gung-ho about singing now. Today he was gyrating his hips while standing on the amp while singing. I haven’t laughed so hard in a while. This is a big change for him. When we first proposed the idea [of the band], with him on bass clarinet, he was wary of it. He would do it, he said, but claimed it would be really embarrassing and that we’d never live it down.

Then we tried to convince him to sing, after hearing him, and he ruled that right out. Then we asked Mr. Anderson to put pressure on him. Anderson told him that he had to sing, because he “had his name down in the program for the assembly.” After saying this, Anderson winked at me and I got the message.

Gradually, Glen got used to the idea and now I couldn’t envision him being more enthusiastic. Today he was spitting out ideas such as going around from class to class, renting ourselves out—a variation on Paul’s and my birthday idea, where for $5 we serenade your friend with “Happy Birthday” in their surprised homeroom. I really see this idea snowballing.

December 20, 1987

On Wednesday, the Slobovian Army performed. We started at around 8 and played until 8.25. It went all right, I thought. Glen didn’t sing, though. He chickened out. We didn’t get a big crowd because the buses were late and half the population arrived between 8.30 and 9. Barb said it was perfect, as the weather really sucked outside, and then she walked inside and saw these guys in loud outfits playing polkas. “It really lightened up a gloomy morning,” she said.

I wore my Hawaiian shirt with grey jeans, a Late Night shirt underneath, an Austrian red hat, and the essential shades. Paul wore a blue Hawaiian shirt with faded jeans, a cordoroy hat and shades. Glen had a not-too-offensive orange Hawaiian with a fedora and shades. Greg had a red shirt with white palm trees, a blue wool hat with beer labels saying ‘Oktoberfest’ all around it, and no shades. Derek thought we were going for “the Beach Boys image.” I was thinking more along the lines of the Shuffle Demons.

That afternoon after school, we had an encore performance. We played for around 45 minutes and garnered quite a crowd for a while, as we caught everyone leaving. I can honestly say the place was packed for a while. After about ½ hour, we had finished and Greg wanted to pack it up. But—never leave a crowd unsatisfied! We ran through a bunch of things. It was OK. Everyone got into “Peter Gunn,” etc. Brenda Campbell and company loved it. Mr. Anderson said the next day that we’d be amazed at the number of guys with sloping foreheads and dragging their feet that were saying (he mocks a stoned monotone), “Wow—this is cool stuff.” I honestly never would have guessed there was a market for polkas.

In the morning we raised $14. In the afternoon we raised $8 plus a bus ticket from Justin Lear and an unchewed piece of gum, plus numerous compliments throughout the week. Mr. Turner is a fan. Mrs. DiLeonardo thinks we should get a busking license and play in the subways. We managed to lure Mr. Donovan out of his hideout (his office) and Mary Joyce Empensando “thought you guys were good but I didn’t give you any money.”

Friday was an important day. I had to hand in a dissection and lab report in Biology, and a poetry assignment for English. The band was playing at the mass in the morning, and the Slobovian Army was having a command performance at the assembly in the afternoon. I stayed up until 12.30 Thursday night doing the former projects.

Friday morning. The mass starts at 9. The band is to be there at 8. I was planning on walking to the church (St. Thomas More) so I would have to leave around 7.15. This means I get up at 6.45. This I do. I step into the shower, and halfway through I feel like I’m going to throw up. I then get out of the shower and do exactly that. Seven minutes after I have breakfast, that decides to come up too.

I realize that I must go to school, yet I cannot walk. Mother graciously offers her driving services.

I feel extremely feeble throughout the mass, yet I was OK…

Back at school, I was under the impression that we’d have lots of time to rehearse, etc. Not the case. Everybody appearing, including a terrible rap group, wanted, needed and got a sound check. I was feeling very hungry so I had an apple, which I threw up fifteen minutes before the show began. I almost didn’t make it safely, as it came up halfway through my sprint to the bathroom. I managed to cover it and everything was safely flushed. I felt a lot better after that.

Our first set we played as everyone walked in and it included the Christmas stuff, plus “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Pigbag” (which the crowd got into, shouting “hey!”—even though we were very mediocre), “Peter Gunn,” “Stand By Me,” and that’s about it. It was OK. All this was while people were filing in, so I couldn’t tell—or care—if they were listening or not.

The middle set, when we were the center of attraction, was not so hot. Very sloppy. Fortunately, we only played around seven songs. Glen was going to sing and Paul and I were going to slow down [the tempo], but Greg was too far away from us and we weren’t able to signal him. Shame.

When we finished, I went up to the mic to make an announcement. I mentioned our cause, our total ($20), and thanked Mr. Anderson for his support. I kick myself now as I think of all the things I could have said.

“I’d like to introduce the members of the band. On the drums, Gregory ‘meet you backstage’ Hodowansky! On the bass clarinet and sometimes vocals, that sexy hunk of masculinity who is embarrassed sooooo easily, Glen Johnstone! And on the eternal squeezebox, my partner in crime, Mr. Paul ‘everyone loves a polka’ Mora! I’m Mike, and thanks again for your support and remember: disco died, rock still tries, but ladies and gentlemen, polkas never die!”

It would have been great! Would have, I suppose.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Awkward Chic

There’s been much to discuss lately, including a recap of the Polaris Prize gala and some Pop Montreal reportage.

But more immediate concerns spring to mind. Namely, two out-of-towners in Toronto this weekend that could use some attention; both are horribly underrated and I haven’t seen anything in local press about them. I’d been meaning to write something large about each, but autumn being what it is, time has been extremely scarce.

Tonight at the Horseshoe is Vancouver’s The Awkward Stage (they’re on early, at 9pm). Their second album, Slimming Mirrors, Flattering Lights, is one of the only pop records that I’ve been listening to consistently all summer. It’s safe now to say that singer/songwriter Shane Nelken has surpassed his former employer, the New Pornographers’ Carl Newman—at least based on the latest set of songs from each. Nelken writes fantastic classical pop melodies, expands his arrangement skills on this second album, and is the kind of “smart” songwriter that isn’t winking at you in every second phrase or, even worse, flexing his thesaurus for vocab brownie points.

I’m the kind of middle-aged pop fan who’s ready to put all his Elvis Costello albums in a box under the stairs, and has little time for the disciples that now follow. (Though my Joe Jackson love remains, for whatever reason). And yet Nelken never comes off as smug or showy—not even when writing a jazzy waltz called “True Love on Three With Feeling.”

His lyrics here are, for the most part, astounding. Nearly every song either paints a complete narrative portrait or contains plenty of poetic zingers per capita; his turns of phrase and internal rhyme schemes put him up there with Randy Newman; perhaps someday soon even Leonard Cohen, circa I’m Your Man, (although obviously an entirely different tone and a slim fraction of the generational gravitas). There are too many lyrics to quote, but my favourite one in this past month of electioneering is the way Nelken creates a jaunty chorus from the line: “Fear and anger, baby, it’s all I got.”

Yet for all his wordiness, Nelken never tries to cram more words-per-minute to crowd the melody. And the arrangements are universally excellent: the acoustic songs are lush and lovely, while glammed-up guitars give songs like “Hey Modern School Girl” and the raucous “Anime Eyes” more punch than was ever heard on the band’s debut album two years back. “Mini Skirt of Xmas Lights” covers all the band’s bases in one song.

I had a few more things to say about Slimming Mirrors, Flattering Lights in a CD review here. And I had a long discussion with Nelken when his first album came out in 2006; that is posted here. I’d forgotten that we talked a bit about high school reunions; I’m bound for mine next weekend.

The Awkward Stage play the Horseshoe tonight at 9pm. Later that same night, Halifax’s orchestral pop combo Fall Horsie (the band is better than their name) play Tiger Bar with Toronto heroes Forest City Lovers; I last wrote about the latter here.

Friday night finds Pas Chic Chic returning to Toronto from Montreal. The last time they were here didn’t turn out so well, despite the amazing set they played; I reviewed it here. I’ve also written about their 2008 album Au Contraire here and here. I only caught the last two minutes of their packed Pop Montreal set a couple of weeks back; I’m looking forward to seeing them play in the middle of a strong bill at the El Mocambo, featuring Edmonton’s Wet Secrets (responsible for perhaps the best rock song of 2008, “Get Your Own Apartment”) and Montreal’s We Are Wolves, who were positively explosive at this year’s Hillside Festival. Finer Friday night entertainment you will not find.