Klezmer band melding countries and eras for Bay Area shows

Mandolin player Eric Stein says the police are after him — the klezmer police, that is.

Stein acknowledges criticism over the years because his band, Beyond the Pale, isn’t “pure” enough for some klezmer purists. Blending Jewish, Balkan, Romanian and other musical strains, the band never has treated klezmer like a museum piece.

“We recognize what we do is not squarely in any one box,” Stein said from his Toronto home. “There are other groups in the klezmer scene that really make it sound as if it’s 1879, but that’s not where my sensibilities lie.”

Bay Area klezmer fans can judge for themselves when Beyond the Pale comes to the region for a pair of concerts, including one at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage on Feb. 7, a presentation of the Jewish Music Festival. The other show is Feb. 8 at Don Quixote’s International Music Hall near Santa Cruz.

Beyond the Pale photo/asli alin

Together for more than 10 years, Beyond the Pale benefits from having a Jewish mandolin player (Stein, a former rock musician), a Dutch clarinetist as well as three classically trained members from Serbia (violins and accordion). Throw in a jazz-influenced bass player from Ontario and you have one diverse ensemble.

“Everyone brings a level of understanding they can convey to the others,” Stein adds. “One thing we try to avoid is too much of a slavish orthodoxy. So when it comes to playing klezmer, I bring a lot of that depth. The Serbian guys bring depth of experience to Balkan music to inform the other guys in the band.”

The results can be heard on “Postcards,” the latest CD from Beyond the Pale. It’s a frappe of traditional klezmer and original tunes, mostly hyper-rhythmic instrumentals with a pair of lilting Yiddish songs thrown into the mix.

If there’s a common thread in the music of Beyond the Pale, it would be the band’s tight ensemble playing. “When we play, no one voice is ever more important than the other,” Stein says. “We try to do a collective musical conversation.”

Stein says the band incorporates an improvisational element, often developed when they play weddings. Those wedding gigs link them to klezmer bands of the distant past. The music traces its origins largely to shtetl weddings and similar simchas in Eastern Europe.

“It’s functional music, community music,” Stein notes. “That keeps us connected to what the music is about: connecting with people. We can play a festival stage or  concert hall, play for jazz fans, Jewish music fans. We fit into a lot of different slots.”

A virtuoso player now, Stein grew up in a Jewish home with little exposure to Jewish music. In fact, he remembers thinking of it as “something stuffy and dorky. It was ‘Hava Negillah’ and ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ ”

He went on to earn a master’s in American history at McGill University in Montreal, playing rock music on the side. Before undertaking a doctorate and a career in academia, he decided to take up mandolin as a way to chill out.

“It opened my ears to a lot of things, and klezmer was breaking big,” he recalls. “That’s when I started getting excited about it.”

That enthusiasm blossomed after attending KlezKanada, one of the biggest klezmer festivals in North America. After seeing klezmer clarinetist Andy Statman at Toronto’s Ashkenaz Festival (a festival Stein now serves as artistic director) the deal was sealed.

“I came [to the festival] with a vague interest in Jewish music,” he says, “but I saw so many things that blew my mind. I wanted to know more.”

In 1999 he launched Beyond the Pale. At first the band went for a kitchen sink approach, playing everything from bluegrass to Django Rheinhardt covers. In time, they settled on a Balkan-klezmer fusion that has served them well through three CDs and multiple international tours.

One of those tours took them to the world-renowned Festival  of Jewish Culture in Krakow, Poland. If the klezmer police were on patrol that week in 2007, they kept their mitts off Beyond the Pale.

“They loved us,” remembers Stein. “We felt like rock stars while we were there.”

The Jewish Music Festival presents Beyond the Pale 8 p.m. Feb. 7 at Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley. $18.50-$19.50. Information: (510) 644-2020. They play 7:30 p.m., Feb. 8 at Don Quixote’s International Music Hall, 6275 Highway 9, Felton. $10. Information: (831) 603-2294.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.