Carnival Barkers 

Fire, music and the Dolomites’ cartoonish spectacle

Ever been to the bar mitzvah of a gothic Jew, yarmulke covering a jet black dye job just above a face of black-painted lips that just finished reading from the Torah? Me neither. In the unlikely event this happens to you in the near future, however, you might want to know something about the Dolomites. They’re a band Woody Allen would be thrilled with because, apart from the “Hava Nagila” sound, Dolomites tunes tend to have that mocking attitude towards death that Woody Allen often indulges in.

They’ve been frequently compared to the Pogues—a valid comparison to some extent, but the music of the Dolomites is more rooted in the Russian tradition of Cossack dancing than in a Celtic sound. I’ve never been to a carnival in Russia, but when I imagine one, this is the music that would be playing as a tattooed, toothless man with an organ grinder’s monkey attempts to sell me an old boot, all the while ogling the underage girls passing by.

There have been bands like this before. Most recently, the Squirrel Nut Zippers took a stab at it. These carnival bands tend to fade out as quickly as they appear, because there’s something cheap and tawdry about the music. It’s as though you want to get your bang and then get the hell out. Anything more would be like starting up a conversation with a hooker about the Industrial Revolution after you’d already had sex. You got what you came for, so why stick around?

Yes, glitzy and sleazy gimmicks abound with the Dolomites. Onstage, you might find a flaming toilet, a bubbling trumpet or shots of fire singeing your eyebrows. It’s the kind of garish spectacle put to cartoonish music that brings Pee Wee Herman to mind. And if that’s all there were, we’d certainly throw the Dolomites away after we’d had our fun, like any other fast-food commodity.

But there’s something more here. This band is actually filled with damn fine musicians. Wailing clarinet, lilting accordion, and popping guitars and banjos come together to put on a medicine show to draw not just inquisitive, morbid freak-show wanderers, but also serious music fans. This is not to say that Dolomites are to be taken seriously. That would be missing the point, as well as the fun. But after all the Bela Lugosi-style “Whah-hah-hah-has,” after all the props and pyrotechnics, the Dolomites still churn out music that you don’t hear much anymore, and they’re doing it with precision. This is what keeps the band relevant for the 364 days of the year that aren’t Halloween.

Lyrically, the Dolomites offer plenty to sing along with. Band founders Koji B. and Max Skewes wail and growl in the style of Primus’ Les Claypool. They’re like carnival barkers, except instead of trying to sell you a raffle ticket, they’re selling themselves. The Dolomites play drinking songs, plain and simple. You can picture a ship full of drunken sailors, swaying from side to side as the ship does the same, while an accordion wheezes in and out with the current. And it’s all incredibly danceable, even if you’re three sheets to the wind. In fact, it may even be more danceable in that case.

The problem facing the Dolomites is that their curious mix of violence, spectacle and childishness is exactly the type of thing that kept the Violent Femmes lurking in the shadows. Few will take it seriously because it isn’t meant to be taken seriously. To return to the hooker analogy, a Dolomites radio hit is about as likely as a prostitute and her client of falling in love, the sort of thing generally confined to a Julia Roberts movie.

But this band is meant to be seen, not just heard. And in a country saturated with rock bands who treat their audiences as if the band is doing them a favor by being there, it’s refreshing to come upon musicians who still know how to put on a show in every sense of the word. In recent years the words “concert” and “show” have been growing further and further apart. If nothing else, the Dolomites make every effort to breach this divide. 

The Dolomites bring their medicine show to the Ritz at 10 PM Wednesday, Sept. 25. Cover TBA.

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