Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Serfs up in Newburyport

Funny thing is that Gary Sredzienski has no idea who the guilty party actually is, the guy who got him started on this crazy quixotic journey, the “accordion god” he saw as a 4-year-old at the Eastern States Exposition. But looking back at it from a distance of more than 40 years later, as he does in “Creek Man: The Unbelievable True Story of the Accordion-Playing Merman,” the stage-play based on his improbable career, Sredzienski figures, well, he might have been a little over-enthusiastic. He was probably just another cookie-cutter Lawrence Welk wannabe dressed up in a shiny monkey suit, his hair combed into a pomp, a glitter vest: a “real accordion geek,” Sredzienski says in his one-man show. But when the guy did the bellows shake, a squeezebox trick that creates a stuttering effect, Sredzienski felt a shiver go up his spine. He knew he had found his calling. Of course, he had no idea that outside his Polish-American enclave in the Connecticut Valley, the accordion was not especially cool, that the phrase "accordion god" could never be used except with a sneer, and even the mere association with the instrument could result in noogies or worse.

Didn’t stop him though. Lessons as an 8-year-old. (You couldn't take lessons until you were 8 years old, for some reason.) Playing in the Hog Hollow Hooters, a vaudeville band whose name didn't cause adolescent giggles back then, for some reason, as a 10-year-old. (“The next youngest player was 70 years old,” he says.) Then came the emotional divorce from his supposed roots, the music most closely associated with the instrument, and his exploration of the actuality of polka (the real deal, a true folk music with dark, minor keys that reveal the turmoil and difficulties of life, not the cheesy, white-bread bastardization of the music popularized by Welk) and the possibilities of the accordion. Then the initially ironic, iconoclastic storming of the University of New Hampshire bastilles with eight examples of the afore-mentioned cheese when the always-hip WUNH was riffing on the “alternative” theme — and instead of getting a couple of laughs, ended up with what has been a two-decade-long gig as host of the Polka Party. (“I’m so sick of doing it,” he says. “I hate polka music so much. Imagine, a thousand years of Polish culture represented by this one song form. That’s just not fair.”) Then, of course, the ultimate challenge: to make people see what a “cool, diverse instrument” the accordion is.

Yeah, he knows. “It’s been a real uphill struggle.” But Sredzienski proves what may seem, to many, counter-intuitive or even a contradiction in terms (the phrase "cool accordion") every time he whips out his ax with the Serfs — the accordion-fronted Seacoast surf band that has been kicking out the alt-jams for, yikes, 20 years and will make its Port premiere this week at the Finch Coffee House. Actually, “surf-rock” is a little too flip a description, but you have to call it something, and no label really sticks. Even Sredzienski is at a loss to explain it, calling it world music, traditional music and surf, a round-peg-square-hold fusion of many styles that refuses to be categorized. Within a Serfs context, that would be ripping through a set that includes traditional music like “Hava Nagila,” and amped-up “covers” of “Flight of the Serfer Bee” and, of course,“Serf City,” tunes from “Cruising the Creek,” the band’s last album. Think Polish wedding meets beach party. It’s not quite right, but gets you into the room.

Actually, the band came together at a Polish wedding. Sredzienski was there, so was a surf/rockabilly band called Beach Cowboys. The two acts fused into the Serfs. The Serfs haven’t recorded in a while. “Cruising the Creek,” their last release, came out six years ago. Sredzienski hopes to get the band back into the studio next year. “It’s been far too long,” he says. But, in the meantime, he’s been doing pretty well with his own catalogue, licensing his music for television and film, including, “Bad News Bears,” Eddie Murphy’s “Meet Dave,” CBS’s series “Love Monkey,” ABC’s “Dirty Sexy Money” and NBC's "The Philanthropist." He’s got something coming up on the CBS series “Brothers and Sisters.”

Then there’s the whole swimming — and stage — thing: He’s a swimming nut. Yeah, a Serf in the surf. Five days a week, 12 months. In the dead of winter? And not dip-your-toes-in-the-water-and-call-it-a-day, either. Like a swim to the Isle of Shoals during January. Raised a pile of dough for charity. It’s all laid out in “Creek Man,” written and and performed by Sredzienski and directed by Kent Stephens. The play, which was staged a couple of times in New Hampshire this past summer, was a great experience. Not. He was abused by a team of literary thugs. He would write and they would tear it apart the next day. “It was torture,” says Sredzienski, 47. “I’m no writer. I’ve never even been in a play.” Then there was the schedule, to do two shows a day — up there, alone, no escape, not even a chance to duck into the shadows when someone else takes a solo. “Brutal,” he says. “Being in a band is like a vacation.”

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Gary Sredzienski and the Serfs perform at 8 p.m. Oct. 16 at the Finch Coffeehouse, located at 26 Pleasant St., Newburyport, MA. Tickets are $15. Tickets are available at Dyno Records, and at the door the night of the show. For more information, about the show, contact Karen by email or at 978-465-5767. More information about the Serfs here. More info about the Finch here.

No comments:

Post a Comment