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CD Review: Klezmatics / Wonder Wheel

Woody Guthrie-style naive art with bad letteringKlezmatics / Wonder Wheel. JMG Records, JMG 18033-02, 2006. CD available everywhere. Start at the Klezmatics website, www.klezmatics.com.
Seth Rogovoy about the Klezmatics' Woody Guthrie project
There are few concerts I have enjoyed as much as the Klezmatics' debut of Woody Guthrie songs that they had set to music a couple of years ago. (They are on tour with this music now, so check out their website or the KlezmerShack calendar for concerts near you.) The band has captured the spirit of Woody without ever sounding like anyone but the Klezmatics. Now, two years later I am listening to the actual music captured on CD with tears in my eyes. It's just that good*.

I haven't been able to get "Mermaid Avenue" out of my mind since I first heard it, and it still captures the spirit of Coney Island as it was (and is):

...Where the lox and bagels meet
Where the halvah meets the pickle
Where the sour meets the sweet;
... Where all color of goodfolks meet;...

Those lyrics describe the album, from the pain of the counting song, "Come when I call you" and "Orange blossom ring" to the child's lullaby, "Heddy down" to Matt Darriau's psychedelic Beatles-esque "Pass Away," to the klezmer-influenced feel of "Wheel of Life" to the South-American flavor of "Condorbird" and the wonderful world-pop intro to "Heaven".

Everything about this album is exciting, including the possibility that it might finally get the band heard by a wider audience. As much as I loved what Billy Bragg and Wilco did with Woody's material, this recording proves two things: First, that the Klezmatics, collectively, represent deep and talented American music roots, and as much as I love Wilco (and Billy Bragg even more), they got nothing on this band. Second, that Woody Guthrie wrote some powerful, wonderful songs, and musicians continue to find the words relevant and good music with which to sing them. Okay, we already knew the latter and suspected the former. Now we know it all. [GRADE: A+]

*Note that there is a companion to this CD derived from Woody's Jewish material—"Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanukkah" about which I will be writing soon! You needn't wait on the review. Pick up the pair and have a happy, joyous, Hanukkah (or help create one for someone you love).

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