Polka returns to Blob's Park
The past few years have been tough ones for polka music. In June, the Recording Academy announced that the Grammys would not award a Best Polka Album, even though it had done so for 24 straight years. The decision, a spokesman said, was a reflection of a trend that had fewer albums nominated for the category each year and was made "to ensure the awards process remains representative of the current musical landscape." Jimmy Sturr, a crossover artist whose music is as much country-pop and adult-contemporary as it is polka, had won the award 18 times, and the lack of competition also contributed to the decision.
Here in Maryland, polka took a major hit when Blob's Park, the Bavarian-style hall in Jessup where Sturr had played annually, announced it would be closing down at the end of 2007 and selling off the property. For all of 2008, the immense, warehouse-like structure was shuttered and polka was not heard for the first time since Blob's Park opened in 1933. It was the sad but seemingly inevitable end to an institution that had been suffering dwindling, aging crowds since the mid-'90s.
But polka is not that easy to kill. Blob's Park reopened under new management this past New Year's Eve with a dancehall that had been repainted and refurbished. This coming Saturday, the polka palace hosts Brave Combo, the Texas roots-rock band that has twice won the Grammy Award for Best Polka Album--in 1999 for Polkasonic and in 2004 for Let's Kiss. Brave Combo, which released one album last fall (The Exotic Rocking Life) and already has another one coming out this fall (Symphonic Polkas), is evidence enough that the polka genre is still creating new and exciting music. And Max Eggerl, Blob's Park's new owner, is trying to borrow some of that energy.
"There's an awful lot of grassroots feeling for polka, but one of my challenges is to get younger people involved in it," Eggerl says. "Polka carries the curse of being an older person's music, but I've found if I can lure younger people on a Saturday night when one of these hot bands has the place hopping, they'll come back. Brave Combo is an alternative polka band, the Grateful Dead of polka bands. They put on a show as well play the music. They're loud--they play a faster beat. They play 'Jingle Bells,' 'The Theme from Mission Impossible,' and 'Louie Louie' to polka arrangements."
Brave Combo's version of "Louie Louie" on The Exotic Rocking Life, is actually a cha-cha, and the version of "Mission Impossible" is actually a cumbia. But the fact that both arrangements work in the context of a "Bavarian Bier Garten," as Blob's Park describes itself, is testimony not only to Brave Combo's skill, but also to the universal appeal of working-class dance music from around the globe. If you like dancing to Latin music or Cajun/zydeco, you'll probably like dancing to the polka--and vice versa. The pounding one-two beat, the sweaty aerobics, and the mix of ages all conspire to shatter hipster cool and foster a real sense of community for a few hours.
"We couldn't figure out why polkas were hidden away in a corner when the music is so obviously cool," says Carl Finch, the founder/leader of Brave Combo. "Our attitude was maybe there was strength in embracing a music so far down on the status scale. If we played it with a rock 'n' roll approach and it clicked at all, we'd have the genre all to ourselves. That quiet/loud transition that Nirvana used in 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' is used all the time by polka musicians. The verses have a really strong melody that follows a simple chord structure, which you can mess with, but they stay in a lower gear. When you get to the chorus, though, you let all the stops out and just go for it. When you shift into that polka groove, people go nuts."
When Brave Combo came to Blob's Park in 2005, people did go nuts. Before the show, customers sat at the long banquet tables covered in red tablecloths, eating the schnitzel and wurst carried from the kitchen by the waitresses in Bavarian costumes. The walls were lined with deer heads, Hummel figurines, and giant beer steins. When the band took the stage, though, the immense wooden parquet dance floor instantly filled with dancers--Cajun dancers in their gym outfits and Fort Meade soldiers in their crew cuts, Polish grandmothers from Baltimore and teenage girls from Columbia, tattooed waitresses from the Sobo Café and bee-hived hons from a John Waters movie.
Finch, sporting a flat-brim black cowboy hat, manhandled his sparkling white piano accordion through a couple of polkas, backed by the honking tenor sax of his longtime partner, the bearded giant Jeffrey Barnes. The practiced dancers began every measure with a short hop followed by a short shuffle; soon couples everywhere were bouncing and spinning beneath the colored lights, producing a giddy, disorienting effect. Finch then switched to guitar for a cha-cha medley of "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" and "The Peter Gunn Theme," adding amp distortion for effect. Barnes even played two flutes at once as if he were the Roland Rahsaan Kirk of the polka world.
"Look around," urged Finch from the bandstand. "This is the place to be. It's waltz time in beautiful Blob's Park." The waltz was followed by a polka that the band claimed to have written just for that night: "Holiday in Jessup."
"Beautiful Blob's Park" was the place to be for years and years. In 1925, Max Blob, a recent German immigrant, built a private dancehall and bowling alley on his Anne Arundel County farm for family parties. Those parties became so legendary in Maryland's tight-knit German-American community that Blob opened the dancehall to the public in 1933. With live polka music and traditional Bavarian food, the place became a favorite for German-Americans and Polish-Americans. In 1942, his niece Katherine Eggerl, a waitress since 1935, took over the operation. When the building burned down in 1958, she and her husband rebuilt it as a rambling Victorian house where you could dance beneath the low ceilings as if it were a house party.
When dancers outside the ethnic community discovered the place, attendance soared and the Eggerls were turning people away. So they built the current, warehouse-sized hall in 1976. Eggerl ran the place with her eldest son John until she died at age 89 in 2007. The 69-year-old John decided he didn't want to continue in the face of declining attendance and delayed maintenance. He chose to retire and with the consent of his family, cut a deal with a developer to turn the valuable land just off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway into houses. The recession slowed things down, though, and Max, a younger son, decided to carve out the dancehall and parking lot from the development deal and reopen the hall.
"I just felt like it needed to be brought back to life," he says. "So many people had such deep feelings about the business--so many regular customers had their hearts broken when the place closed. The place is an icon--there's history here. We learned from the Smithsonian that the first Oktoberfest ever held on this side of the Atlantic was held at Blob's Park in 1947. A lot of German and Polish descendants still live in the Baltimore area, so this should be a strong region for polka music. I hope to bring it back and make it the polka capital of the East Coast."
To do that, Blob's Park will have to tap into the high-energy polka music coming out of Texas. When German and Czech immigrants poured into the Lone Star State in the middle of the 19th century, they brought the accordion and polka with them. The Mexicans already living there quickly adopted the squeezebox and the hop-happy rhythm and made them central fixtures in the new Tex-Mex conjunto genre. By the late 20th century, Mexican-American accordionists such as Flaco Jimenez, Tony De La Rosa, and Esteban Jordan were virtuosos on the box and regularly played polkas. They gave the syncopation much more of a snap than the typical wedding band, however, and thus sustained the notion that polkas could rock.
You can hear their legacy on Borders y Bailes, the terrific new album by Los Texmaniacs, the quartet led by Max Baca, the longtime accompanist for both Jimenez and the Texas Tornadoes. "Marina," just the first of six energetic polkas on the disc, kicks off with a fast, fluttery accordion riff from Dennis Farias. But soon, the rhythm section enters with the punchy, bottom-heavy attack led by Baca's chording on the bajo sexto, a 12-string instrument that straddles the divide between guitar and bass.
"The Czech and German accordion players used two hands," Baca says. "But the Tex-Mex players used just the right hand to get more speed and flash, so the bajo sexto took the role of the left hand. I call it the grizzly bear of guitars. Once you have that big bottom from the bajo, it's easy to incorporate rock 'n' roll into polka."
The example of those Tex-Mex bands inspired not just Doug Sahm, but also like-minded fellow Anglo Carl Finch. The latter realized the much maligned accordion and even more maligned polka genre could be every bit as exciting as rock 'n' roll, because he had seen it happen in one conjunto band after another. When he founded Brave Combo in 1979, the musicians created a sensation because they were singing polkas in English with an indie-rock attitude and with the snap of their conjunto heroes.
"We started playing rock clubs and we continue to do so," Finch says. "But one year, we played West Fest, a Czech festival in central Texas. They had no idea who we were, but they allowed us to set up in a corner of the beer tent and pass the hat. It went over like gangbusters. Even though our approach was garage-band punk, we were playing songs they knew and we came across as something fresh. Some people didn't like it, but enough people liked that we got invited regularly. People who like Polish polka music wouldn't necessarily come to a Slovenian event or a Czech event and vice versa. The fact that we're [of] no particular ethnicity has helped people in these different genres to accept us.
"We've influenced other bands to play it a little harder, with a little more rock pizzazz," he continues. "There are a couple of traditional bands taking elements from outside the polka world--Freeze Dried uses an edgy R&B thing, and the Dynatones have a great video on YouTube. There are also lots of rock bands that are playing more like we did in the beginning, taking traditional songs and playing them fast and hard--Polkacide from San Francisco, the Black Holes from Milwaukee, the Polkaholix from Chicago. And in Europe where polka had pretty much died out except for the occasional Oktoberfest, the same thing is happening now. People saw what the Pogues did with Irish music, and they're translating it to other older folk musics, including polka."
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