What is it about accordions that strikes us funny? Is it all those keys and buttons? The intricate mother-of-pearl decorations? That big, undulating diamond shape on the bellows? Is it Lady of Spain? What’s the deal? I mean, the harmonica is a reed instrument with the same in-and-out cadences, and a much shriller sound. Yet we think a harmonica is way cool. We call it a “blues harp,” and rock stars get bonus points for playing one, but the hapless sap who straps on a squeezebox gets bupkis. Accordions are considered the province of sailors, gondoliers, pre-adolescent geeks, polka bands, parodists, and strolling cafe musicians that you pay not to stand behind you while you’re trying to eat. What gives?
Well, I am here to tell you that there are a number of brave souls out there who have been working hard to revamp the accordion’s cornicomical image. The Who had a monster hit with Squeeze Box, and They Might Be Giants have used the accordion heavily and unapologetically since the late 80’s. More recently, bands such as Crash Test Dummies and Toad the Wet Sprocket have used the instrument to flavor their indie rock expressionism, and the acclaimed Tin Hat Trio combines accordion with violin and acoustic guitar, creating an intriguing hybrid style called chamber jazz. For my money, however, the most aggressive display of seriously hip accordion playing comes from an ensemble of cheerful fanatics out of San Francisco who bill themselves as Those Darn Accordions!
Mind you, when I say serious, I don’t mean humorless. The band started as a one-off stunt in which former Polkacide squeezer Big Lou assembled every accordionist she could find onstage for one mammoth live performance, and later on, the full dozen of them who formed the original group were fond of conducting raids on Bay area restaurants, wherein they would run in the front entrance, play a tune, then dash out the back (effectively presaging the “flash mob” concept by more than a decade). Later on they downsized to a mere (?) six singing accordionists: Lou, Patty Brady, Clyde Forsman, Suzanne Garramone, Art Peterson, and Paul Rogers (plus the crackerjack rhythm team of bassist Lewis Wallace and drummer Bill Schwartz), and songsmith Rogers took the helm, imposing a bit of order amid the group’s playful anarchy. Rogers augmented their accomplished, genre-hopping instrumental stylings and audacious covers of songs by The Who, Devo, and Cheap Trick with ingeniously silly numbers about aliens, movie monsters, puppets, clowns, and hamsters, while artfully blending in wry, thoughtful songs about social misfits, ne’er-do-wells, and that danged old human condition.
That is the true distinction, I think, about Those Darn Accordions! It would be easy, given their whimsical name and onstage antics (that have included cat glasses, polka skirts, and tattooed octogenarian Forsman crooning Rod Stewart’s Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?), to just slide the band onto the shelf next to Weird Al. While I am a big fan of Mr.Yankovic’s, and he does make a cameo appearance on one of TDA’s albums, I think the comparison sells the band short. They have much more in common with Jimmy Buffett. As zany as they can get, there is a current of sincerity that runs through everything. They have much fun, but they never mock… well, music anyway. (Stupid people are fair game.) When Susie Davis (who, with Carri Abrahms, replaced the departing Big Lou and Patty Brady on the band’s latter day releases) sings a medley of Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love and Black Dog, she belts it out without a trace of irony, or a single Judy Tenuta smirk.
So This Is Not A Novelty Band?
This is not a novelty band. This is a rock band, with accordions instead of guitars. Though you may find yourself swearing that you hear guitars in the mix, there really are none. The ensemble has become very adept at distorting the sound of their keyboards with various electronic modification devices, making them sound as funky, twangy, or ballsy as needed. The current lineup brings the accordion count down to four, but that’s still more than enough to rock the house.
“We have fun, but we take our music seriously,” Rogers recently told the Columbia Daily Tribune. “If you’re sitting there pondering what Those Darn Accordions is like, you’re not going to figure it out. We’re essentially a loud-ass rock accordion band.”
Guitars? They don’t need no steenking guitars. And while you will doubtless laugh a great deal at their songs, don’t you dare laugh at their accordions.