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Wonder Wheel

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Album Review

Wonder Wheel isn't the first album created from completed but never recorded lyrics left behind by the late folk icon Woody Guthrie. In 1998 the British folk-punk singer Billy Bragg and American roots rockers Wilco jointly recorded Mermaid Avenue, which drew from the same pool of material. It was successful enough that a second volume was released two years later. In fact, Wonder Wheel isn't even the first time the Klezmatics have turned to Guthrie's leftovers for inspiration. In 2004, they issued Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanuka, which, like Wonder Wheel, found the musicians taking Guthrie's words — which he'd never set to music — and fashioning from them new compositions that adapted readily to their style. Significantly, the Klezmatics, like the Bragg/Wilco project, chose not to attempt writing as if they were '40s dust-bowl troubadours, but rather to place the poet's words into a contemporary folk-roots setting. That's what makes Wonder Wheel — the title, incidentally, refers to the beautiful old wooden ferris wheel that has been part of the Brooklyn jewel that is Coney Island, NY, where Guthrie lived for several years on, you guessed, it, Mermaid Avenue — such a complete joy. Also significant is that some of the interpretations on Wonder Wheel bear little resemblance to the klezmer music that has always (and obviously) defined the Klezmatics, and that all of the songs are sung in English, not the group's more customary language, Yiddish. Those decisions, naturally, make Wonder Wheel a more accessible Klezmatics album. The track "Mermaid's Avenue," for example — curiously, neither of the Bragg/Wilco Mermaid Avenue volumes actually included the song — might just as easily have worked on a Jonathan Richman record, with its playful lyrics ("Mermaid Avenue that's the street/Where the lox and bagels meet") and minimalist arrangement and instrumentation. Some songs lean closer to Celtic ("From Here On In," beautifully sung by guest vocalist Susan McKeown and chorus) and traditional folk ("Holy Ground") than anything in the Jewish canon, while "Condorbird" is punctuated with a horn chart that neatly peppers its quasi-klezmer rhythm with a southwestern accent. Lyrically, the Klezmatics choose to showcase as wide a range of Guthrie's interests as possible, from the vehemently antiwar "Come When I Call You" and "Goin' Away to Sea" to the children's song "Headdy Down" and the hopeful, optimistic "Heaven" and "Wheel of Life." Each of the bandmembers turns in exemplary performances here but the versatile lead vocalist Lorin Sklamberg is due for special consideration: the purity of his singing, and his acute sensitivity to the words he sings, is the chief reason that Guthrie's lyrics are transformed from dust-gatherers to living, breathing, vital pieces of music. Woody's Jewish in-laws would certainly have been proud.


Formed: 1985 in New York City, NY

Genre: World

Years Active: '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

The Klezmatics take one of the wildest approaches to klezmer, the traditional dance music of the Eastern European Jews. Although their music is heavily influenced by the recordings of Abe Ellstein and Dave Tarras in the 1940s and 1950s, their lyrics comment on a wide variety of political and social issues and have led the group to be labeled "the planet's radical Jewish roots band." The original members of the Klezmatics -- Dave Lindsay (bass), Rob Chavez (clarinet), Alicia Svigals (fiddle) -- were...
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Wonder Wheel, The Klezmatics
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