Northampton, Massachusetts-based outfit Bella’s Bartok provide an object lesson in what happens when college theater majors are allowed free rein to play with accordions minus any prudent adult supervision. It’s a slippery slope, one that inevitably leads to the wanton deployment of giant puppet heads. And before anyone can say “Django Reindhardt,” the whole bloody affair is careening out of any semblance of control, bound for hell on back of a crazy ragtag gypsy-circus-punk caravan.
That’s more or less what happened with Bella’s Bartok, according to singer and bassist Asher Putnam, who was among that initial group that founded B’sB some eight years ago. “Some of us were music and jazz majors, and some of us were heavy into theater,” he says. “And we’re all first- and second-generation Americans, a mix of Russian, Hungarian, Romanian. So we all grew up hearing weird music in our grandparents’ houses, and then rediscovered it when we found each other at UMass.”
The band’s music is a colorful crazy quilt of those European traditional and folk influences, interwoven with plenty of American punk and pop, and even some hints of jazz, just for good measure. The music owes something of a debt to like-minded Manhattan outfit Gogol Bordello, whom Asher duly credits as an influence on the band’s sound.
“I went to school for ethnomusicology, and I spent some time traveling Europe, collecting and listening,” Putnam says. “I went through Turkey, the Balkans, Greece, Coatia and Italy. That really solidified my interest in keeping certain traditions alive.
“At the same time, we’re also a bunch of American boys, so we love rock ‘n’ roll, and we want to make our music approachable. We try to integrate American rock with those traditional styles. We like to call what we do ‘circus punk,’ and it is a very a approachable, danceable style.”
And then there’s the band’s stage show, which is every bit as luridly extroverted as one might expect from a band that counts several aspiring thespians among its members, and takes the stage armed with weaponized puppet heads. “We just got a trailer to haul the giant puppets,” Putnam laughs. “They’re big, and they’re creepy, made out of duct tape and chicken wire. And we’ve got a couple extra now we like to disperse amongst the audience members. When you add it all together with the rest of our stage show, we generate a lot of audience interaction. It’s a slightly more wild version of the ‘Muppet Show’, and we like to make the audience a big part of it.”
Bella’s Bartok will play Preservation Pub Friday, Feb. 16 at 10 p.m.