Pick-Staiger was musically set ablaze this weekend by the last two installments of Bienen’s “Soundings” Spring Festival, which had already brought diverse acts from India, Venezuela and Brazil. Friday night’s concert, the festival’s second to last program and appropriately titled “The Big Squeeze,” was a showcase of four accordion virtuosos who dazzled the audience, mostly community members, throughout the four-hour concert.
The concert began with a jolly performance by Chicago native Jimmy Keane. Accompanied by guitarist Dennis Cahill, Keane gave the audience a tour of traditional Celtic music from Western Europe. His jigs ranged from lighthearted Irish themes to a contemplative song dedicated to his wife to grander pieces that were reminiscent of action scenes from Pirates of the Caribbean. The duo, which seemed well suited for a bar setting, served as a great warm-up for the intensity that followed.
Belarusian Alexander Sevastian was the night's second performer displayed flawless technical ability on the accordion. Most people think of the accordion in a simple polka setting with its distinct wheezing timbre, but Sevastian could have easily been mistaken for an organist if it wasn’t for the slight dynamic fluctuations that are the instrument's trademark. He played a breathtaking rendition of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue,” a sincere interpretation of Carl Maria von Weber’s “Invitation to the Dance” and several pieces from the Russian classical repertoire.
Following Sevastian’s triumphant exit — he said he rarely performs for such large, appreciative audiences — French accordionist Julien Labro embarked on a diverse musical journey that included tango and avant-garde jazz. Labro played Tango Nuevo — romantic songs at slow, sultry tempos with beautiful melodies and strong doses of longing — with the Spektral Quartet, a string quartet composed of Northwestern alumni. The Quartet provided a lush harmonic backdrop for the leader’s gently undulating leads played on a bandoneon (an Argentinian accordion variant). Labro also switched to accordina — a smaller version of the accordion that sounds like the hybrid of a harmonica and a muted trumpet—to play a couple songs that required more dexterity like “Il Postino.”
Labro brought the three other accordionists on stage before intermission to jam on a polka — something he said he felt obligated to play. The sonic mingling of four accordions was slightly grating, and all but Labro, who contributed a slick jazzy solo to the jam, seemed restricted by the setting. Regardless, the music was fun and the audience appreciated it, clapping along to the infectious rhythm.
For the second portion of his long stint on the stage, Labro brought up jazz saxophonist Jon Irabagon to join him in improvised deconstructions of Thelonious Monk and Chick Corea tunes. Songs started with Labro hammering chords on his instrument while Irabagon screeched and whaled atonally on his saxophone. The noise eventually morphed into melody and both musicians twisted the prominent themes, hurling solo licks at one another while staying rhythmically locked in.
Victor Goines, Northwestern’s director of jazz studies, joined the group on saxophone for one song. The two saxophonists engaged in assertive solo trading that spiraled into a high-tension musical barrage lasting almost 10 minutes — a thrill for jazz insiders that may have lost some of the audience by the end.
Bluesman Dwayne Dopsie took the stage last, with his band the Zydeco Hellraisers. The group, which also incorporated saxophone, guitar, bass, drums and washboard, dominated the stage for almost two hours. They played incessantly loud and repetitive Zydeco that would have been better experienced in a venue with standing room rather than Pick-Staiger. Nevertheless Dopsie was an enthusiastic entertainer, leaving the stage to walk through the audience and up into the balcony all while hammering out blues licks on his button accordion.
Although the band got off to a strong start, the emphasis on showmanship ultimately diminished the performance as the musician’s improvisation seemed less innovative as the set continued. Dopsie told the dancing crowd that he would play as long as “you all are still here,” which prompted a substantial exodus from the venue. Perhaps if the extended performance would have taken place at the upcoming New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the performer-audience interaction wouldn’t have fizzled so quickly. In context, the Zydeco dance party was an overdone conclusion to an otherwise stimulating concert.