Fanfare Ciocarlia: City Winery (Chicago), 9/25/12

Thu Sep 27 2012

City Winery: not the kind of place I’d expect to see…a show, at all.  My initial fear was that they’d telll me I couldn’t come in dressed like THAT, but it is 2012 after all.  This is the kind of place where you pay twelve bucks for a half-ounce of duck tacos, Chicago’s only Urban Winery, as our MC proudly announced; they’d just had umpteen tons of pinot grapes shipped in and the first vintage was underway.  Fortunately I’d scarfed down a six-dollar footlong en route and they had bottles of Edmund Fitzgerald cheaper than Miller Lites at the Metro, so everything was coming up Milhouse so far. The atmosphere may have been hoity-toity, but the greeters were very gracious and accommodating in rearranging our seating assignments.  As we were led to a choice couple of chairs at a long row of tables near the stage, I struggled to imagine the crowd being seated during a Fanfare Ciocarlia performance.  I’d never seen the Romanian gypsy brass band before, but it’s tough to conceive of music more infectiously danceable.  The crowd here was uniformly stylish but markedly diverse; a mixture of folks who knew exactly what was about to go down and folks with no clue what they were in for.  This latter group surely included the City Winery staff.

The next two guys to sit down in our row introduced themselves as Paul and Sarin.  “You have Romanian friends?” was Sarin’s first question.  I explained that I became aware of Fanfare through Secret Chiefs 3, who used to cover a Ciocarlia staple at their shows.  These cats were obviously pumped at the chance to hear music from the old country, which enhanced our dumb American anticipation a little…

The tuba/French horn contingent emerged onstage first, cloaked in black Capone trenchcoats and hats.  They serenaded us with a slow, slightly mournful melody as the rest of the band entered one by one with a brief solo—saxes, trumpets and clarinet, and then the percussionist walked out and the tempo picked up.  This was more in line with what I was expecting: the fastest brass band on Earth.

The crowd was almost entirely seated but certainly enthralled; this is music that even tipsy yuppies can keep time with via clapping, and the temperature in the room seemed to rise 20 degrees as the band played.  There’s nothing else like this music that I know of.  The players are ridiculously fleet-fingered and impossibly rhythmically tight.  This can only come from decades of being this band.  Odds are the City Winery and its clientele had never witnessed anything like this before.

By the end of the first set, hardly a word of English had been uttered onstage; for this one of only a half-dozen U.S. dates, the Romanian community was out in force and delight was in everyone’s eyes regardless of whether or not you could understand what was being said or sung.  Then one of the sax players said something about the band going to drink some wine and they’d be back in ten minutes.

Intermission was indeed brief; before the music started, that same fellow said “Now you finish, eh…” and made the universal gesture for eating, “and then you get up?”  They came out full-force now, and it took no time for a good portion of the crowd to start dancing our asses off.  Some of these rhythms take time for the Western ass to get accustomed to, but before long folks of all colors and ages were gyrating wildly.  The primal flavor of this music approximates a drug; it is universally celebratory and also extremely sensuous in a frantic sort of way.  That’s not to suggest that there’s no subtlety; the rhythm section in particular was astonishing in its deftness, creating rich, deep harmonies along with the minimal drums and cymbals to propel the music.  The soloists were terrific; charismatic and fluid, not reliant on speed by any means.  They even threw in a couple vocal jams in which everybody mimicked his horn part via rhythmic hums, and at one point they descended into a jumble of squeaks and whistles that approximated an eyrie at feeding time.  These guys do things with horns nobody else does, and they whipped the crowd into a frenzy.  By the end of the set the stage was carpeted with dollars of all denominations; this made me uncomfortable at first (never cared for strip clubs), and I don’t know if it’s an Eastern European thing or a well-to-do touristy thing or what but the musicians seemed grateful so I guess I’ll go along.  They certainly deserved the cash.

After a two-song encore the drummer peeked out from backstage and pointed to the hallway, grinning.  Out marched the rest of Fanfare Ciocarlia, playing as they paraded into the lobby for essentially another set!  At this point some couples who knew the songs started pulling out some serious dance moves; it felt like a boisterous wedding reception, with most of the crowd surrounding the band and dancers and clapping jubilantly.  If there is a core purpose that defines music, it swept into Chicago on a Tuesday night and united the spectrum of middle America and then disappeared into the night again.

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