There's a bit of inspirational verse making the rounds on the Internet -- falsely (and ridiculously) attributed to sources as varied as Mark Twain and Satchel Paige -- that urges you to "Dance like nobody's watching." Whoever wrote this most definitely wasn't talking about polka, a dance that lends itself to abandon, but an abandon observed. And in this day and age, it's impossible to polka without irony.
Fortunately, in the Bay Area we have irony pouring out our ears. How else to explain the fact that our very own Polkacide is still around after twenty years? Tight musicianship? A frenetic, whirlwind pace? Sure, there's that, but Polkacide's longevity is a testament to something more than America's love of a winking joke.
Let's call that something "beer."
Without beer, there is no polka. Beer is the primordial ooze from which polka emerged, and to which it will return. Small wonder, then, that most of Polkacide's set list consists of songs about beer. So how else do you expect the band to celebrate its twentieth anniversary on a March Saturday at Bottom of the Hill, other than with a birthday keg presented onstage with great pomp and circumstance by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and a guy dressed as a giant hot dog?
The beer was poured into outstretched mugs (if not directly into outstretched mouths), and in fact sprayed from one woman's mouth directly into the crowd, right after one overheated audience member announced, "I'm ready for the rain machine."
"Remember when people used to bring us beer?" cracked band leader and sax machine Ward Abronski.
Oh, we remembered, from the squeaking klezmer clarinet in "Wiener Dog Polka" to the Russian waltz "Broken Life." Polka does things to a man. And now, Polkacide was preaching to the perverted: The throng was loaded with pirates, gals in fedoras and polka-dot dresses, and guys in gowns, fezzes, and plastic Viking helmets. Agewise, the spectrum ranged from parents of bandmembers to the usual clubgoers not much older than the band itself. The other bands on the bill maximized the quirk quotient, from Rube Waddell's furious junkyard blues set (culminating in a raucous harmonica rendition of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy") to the Gun and Doll Show's shtick-heavy spectacle, grazing genres from funk to punk to butt-rock to country, featuring babes in slips singing harmonies that weren't particularly harmonious. Not to mention more costume changes than a Grace Jones concert.
But even the uninitiated (assuming any were present), need only have looked at Polkacide to realize the band represented an especially odd ooompah lunatic fringe. There was clarinet player Neil Basa, with his row of metal spikes forming a stegosaurus Mohawk along his bald head. And accordionista Maggie Martin in a poofy red skirt and golden crown. And guitarist Impor Hisky, with a chef's hat and a long string of sausage links descending from his groin. Not to mention Abronski, sporting a black Speedohosen getup.
You see what I'm saying about irony. Fortunately, Polkacide had the brass to back it up.
One thing that isn't ironic is Abronski's trademark opening to most songs: "Ready to the left? Ready to the right? Ready in the pit?" The band lends itself to slam polka, and the crowd is glad to oblige. A novelty number like the "Chicken (Duck) Dance," with its hand-jive and tail-shaking, is designed to ensnare even the most muleheaded hipster, but the "polka pals" at this birthday bash were a particularly eager bunch to begin with. In the middle of the call-and-response I love to hear the vendors shout: KIELBASA, BEER, AND SAUERKRAUT, Abronski noted, "You know your lines too good. This is supposed to be the part where I harangue you for not shouting loud enough."
But the crowd was already whooped into euphoria by the thundering brass broadside -- Polkacide pounded out polka after polka, plus a waltz, a Yiddish freilich, and even some wild Romanian Gypsy wedding music. In a Flintstones-style leopard-print dress, original guitarist Bruno DeSmartass joined the band to roar out the classic refrain Roll out the barrel, we'll have a barrel of fun with great gusts of gusto. By the time things wrapped up with "In Heaven There Is No Beer" (That's why we drink it here), it was already closing time, and there was no question of an encore. "When we're done, please go away, okay?" Abronski pleaded, and despite the pervasive chants of "Four more beers," the crowd obediently filed past the three Doggie Diner heads parked outside and off into the night.
"Twenty years of fucking polka," Abronski marveled. Here's to many more, assuming the beer holds out.
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