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MailTribune.com
  • When accordions attack

    The instrument of social misfits everywhere is celebrated at the Black Sheep
  • I've always suspected that at some point in my life I would end up in a bar late on a Tuesday night watching four accordion players grind out a cover of Michael Jackson's "Thriller."
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  • I've always suspected that at some point in my life I would end up in a bar late on a Tuesday night watching four accordion players grind out a cover of Michael Jackson's "Thriller."
    Sounds cheesy as hell, eh? You had to be there.
    I rarely go to what some would describe as "traditional" rock shows anymore. Just can't justify spending my precious, non-work hours watching self-conscious pretty boys wax sensitive over fuzzy guitar and Smiths bass lines.
    Those days are over, folks.
    However, you promise me some accordion tunes about dead children and the apocalypse and I'll be ready and rearin'.
    And so it came to pass that on Tuesday night the Monsters of Accordion tour rolled through Ashland for a stop at the Black Sheep. For those of you who might complain of the ubiquitous rock show fliers bands post on every inch of flat space they can find, I say this: They work.
    I spotted the Monsters poster outside Jackson Creek Pizza. The Photoshopped image of Bela Lugosi spreading an accordion had me at hello. Seeing Jason Webley's name attached sealed the already done deal.
    I've written about Webley in these pages before and there's not much more I can say about the man other than he rips it up on accordion, might be a genius or insane and he lives in a houseboat on the Puget Sound. And he has converted his Toyota Corolla into a giant, rolling tomato.
    In other words, he lives the life corporate serfs such as you and I want but will never have.
    This time around Webley brought along three accordion maestros from across the globe. Together they comprise the Monsters of Accordion.
    Kicking off the evening was Canada's own Geoff Berner, small of stature, large of talent and wide of sarcasm. His first song, "Volcano God," was a head-scratcher for about three minutes until you realized what he was up to.
    Criticizing organized religion in popular song is about as original as crafting simple metaphors describing the Bush years, but Berner understands that a bit of humor makes the medicine go down.
    By the time he gets to the lyric "Volcano God/ Praise you with my screams as I watch them fall away" you don't know whether to laugh or jump out the window. That, to me, is the sign of an effective tune.
    Berner was the most political singer of the night. Next he dissected the glory of World War II with "Maginot Line," during which he asked the audience to participate by screaming the chorus: "Stupid! Stupid!"
    He celebrated the coming winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C., by reminding us that the Canadian government cut social services to pick up the games' hefty price tag. Apparently, they decided to close a program that investigated the deaths of Canadian children to make room for the Olympic party. In honor of this event he sang, "And as we sing our anthem one more time,/ Perhaps the cameras will show/ The little babies' corpses/ Rising up from the melting snow."
    I laughed. I'll admit it.
    Eric Stern, a big dude with an old-school 'stache who looks like he could be an extra in "Deadwood," followed with a mind-bending mix of vaudeville, opera and storytelling.
    Stern wielded the accordion with mighty might, but his Bel Canto voice carried the show.
    He slipped easily from traditional Balkan folk ballads to satirical takes on pretentious chess players that infect Portland coffeehouses.
    It got weird after that with Tokyo's Stevhen Ianchu, a founding member of The Dolomites.
    Ianchu took the Monsters of Accordion thing literally by taking the stage wearing a Kabuki monster mask. Not only did he manage to draw a parallel between Kabuki theater and Western vaudeville, he also scared the crap out of a little girl in the front row, who had to be excused for a while to compose herself. I laughed. I'll admit it.
    Ianchu took a punk rock approach to the accordion, keeping the lyrics simple — "I don't know, I don't know, I don't know" — by making it up as he went along.
    Ianchu stomped around the stage, throwing back his head and laughing like Pan while punishing his accordion to its and our limits.
    Ianchu was the perfect foil to Stern and Berner. Where they retained a careful distance through satire and literate song craft, Ianchu's aggressiveness challenged the audience to either get on board or be left behind.
    I was on board the whole way. It did my heart good to hear his desolate cover of Radiohead's "Creep" near the end of his set. Probably the best Radiohead cover ever.
    Webley capped the night with a brief but intense set that included the best version of "Last Song" I've heard, and I've seen the guy four times.
    Webley seems obsessed by the idea of death and rebirth. And tomatoes. But mostly death.
    "Dance While the Sky Crashes Down" was the rocker of the night, all fire and apocalypse. The performance seemed to take what was left of Webley after a long tour. He mostly gave up on baiting the typically reserved Southern Oregon audience into a sing-along.
    Webley scored with a cover of "Billie Jean." Little did we know that was to be the first of the Michael Jackson covers we'd hear.
    His encore called forth each of the monsters for a four-man accordion jam of "Thriller" that finally had everyone up and active. Too bad it was the night's final number.
    Tuesday night was your last chance this year to catch the Monsters of Accordion. Keep an eye out for next year's flier.
    Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 776-4471; or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.
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