Another five years would pass before the Klezmatics would release a new album. By that time, drummer Licht, who had been with the band since its inception, had departed to spend more time with his family. Since then, the Klezmatics have not utilized a specific permanent drummer, but have instead relied upon a handful of trusted percussionists, among them Richie Barshay (who worked previously with Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and others) and Aaron Alexander, who has recorded with many of the top names in world music, jazz and klezmer. Licht has on occasion returned to reprise his inimitable drumming for the band.
As previously mentioned, the newest Klezmatics release as of this writing is the two-disc Live at Town Hall, which captures the group’s March 5, 2006 20th anniversary concert at the New York venue. Recorded in conjunction with the On Holy Ground documentary, the set features a cross-section of music from throughout the Klezmatics’ history, and a lengthy list of special guests, among them previous members David Krakauer and Margot Leverett, who had never recorded with the band until this gig. Licht, Barshay and Alexander all contribute drums to the proceedings, and McKeown and Nelson are among the featured vocalists. The repertoire draws from the group’s earliest days (“Man in the Hat,” “Dybbuk Suite”) and material as recent as the Guthrie adaptations. For everyone involved, the event was a celebration.
“Some of the songs, including Abe Ellstein’s ‘Bobe Tanz’—a tune the Klezmatics played at their first gig in 1986—and the Woody Guthrie-Matt Darriau collaboration ‘Lolly Lo,’ make their first appearance on a Klezmatics CD here,” says Sklamberg. “And the presence of a large coterie of our friends singing backup makes for some great vocal moments, particularly a new Russian choral-inspired arrangement on ‘Dzhankoye’ and the sheer joy of singing together on such favorites as ‘Fisherlid,’ ‘St. John’s Nign,’ ‘Shnirele, perele’ and ‘Tepel.’”
The concert also gave the Klezmatics an opportunity to feature some of their esteemed guests in a solo setting: Joanne Borts on the title song from The Well; Adrienne Cooper and Sklamberg recreating their duet on “I Ain’t Afraid”; Joshua Nelson’s smoking “Elijah Rock” and Susan McKeown’s passionate take on “Gonna Get Through This World.” The show also featured Krakauer recreating “Fun tashlikh” from Rhythm + Jews. Perhaps the most transcendent moment arrives when all of the instrumentalists cut loose on “NY Psycho Freylekhs.”
“It’s great to hear those songs all done with the expanded orchestra. The tunes take on another life and dimension anew,” adds Darriau about the Town Hall set.
“It was great to have so many people from our past and so many great klezmer musicians on stage,” says Morrissett. “I call it ‘the klezmer concert of the decade’ because it was really quite an event. We still have a real excitement for doing this.”
Adds London, “We wanted to celebrate being together for so many years with everyone who has been part of our family. It felt so good and natural and right. The energy was incredible; the love and mutual respect. We are blessed to be part of such a wonderful community.”
Indeed, the Klezmatics have always been as much about community as music, and each member has remained prolific outside of the format of the Klezmatics [see individual bios]. Says Sklamberg, “The energy and support we received from the local community fueled the band, rather than it being a particular sensibility. I would say that at very least it allowed us the freedom to be us.”
A quarter-century after their formation, the Klezmatics remain committed to their music and to the close relationship they share with their fans. Today, that often means redefining how those interactions take place, with a growing focus on the Internet as a means of delivery and communication. Says London, “With the new technologies and means of distribution we get to do all sorts of fun things, like have a special subscription fans’ page where we can let people hear all our old obscure and fascinating one-off projects, like our cover of the Skatalites’ ‘Doin’ the Ska’; the original soundtrack to Fast Trip, Long Drop; our original score for Pilobolus’ Davenen; the “Crown Heights Affair” remix from GodChildren of Soul; Alollo Trehorn’s beatnik poetry and klezmer Ode to Karl Marx; and many more.”
In conclusion, London says, the Klezmatics are well aware of their place in the world and of what they have accomplished thus far—even while they continue to break new ground. He says: “By putting forth a consistent and coherent political and aesthetic Yiddish/klezmer music that embraces our political values, supporting gay rights, workers’ rights, human rights, universal religious and spiritual values expressed through particular art forms, as well as making particular musical choices that at turns emphasize the beauty or funkiness or Jewishness of the music itself, and eschewing the aspects of Yiddish/Jewish culture that are nostalgic, tacky, kitschy, nationalistic and misogynistic, we have shown a way for people to embrace Yiddish culture on their own terms as a living, breathing part of our world and its political and aesthetic landscape.”
“I’ve spent most of my life after age 30 doing something that is profoundly personal and, incredibly enough, artistically fulfilling,” adds Sklamberg. “I was blessed to literally find my voice through my 25-year journey with this band. In 1986 I never imagined that preserving, disseminating and helping to redefine Yiddish music would become my life’s work. I’d like to think that after 25 years of the Klezmatics, audiences ‘get’ what we do,” “I certainly don’t think we sound like anyone else.”
Indeed, they don’t. Never have and—should the Klezmatics (hopefully) last another 25 years—it’s a safe guess that no one else ever will!