Whenever I hear live Balkan music, I find myself wondering, “Why do I ever listen to anything else?” The wild rhythms, the insane harmonies, the tunes that leap in an instant from the depths of despair to the tallest mountaintop of joy … the dance music of the Balkans and eastern Europe is some of the most compelling on earth.
All of that and more was on the program when Blato Zlato came to town. Blato Zlato is a six-piece independent band from Bulgaria by way of New Orleans: Annalisa Kelly and Ruby Ross on vocals, Lou Carrig on accordion and vocals, Ian Cook on violin, a new bassist whose name I didn’t catch, and Boyanna Trayanova on percussion, mainly the tapan or tupan, a double-headed drum of Macedonian/Ottoman lineage. They’ve released one full-length CD, 2015’s Swamp Gold (which is the English translation of the band’s name) and an EP Voyage that has a special story behind it, and are poised to release a second full-length.
The show took place at Podkrepa Hall in North Portland, a cozy community center for the local Bulgarian-Macedonian Association that was built in 1952. Attendance was not huge, about 60 people on a sunny Sunday evening, but at least half of them took part in Balkan-style folk dances to most of the band’s batch of 14 songs spread over two sets.
The music drew heavily on Swamp Gold including the first song of the night, the transfixing traditional a capella song “Ladom Se Goro Zalade,” which featured solo vocals from both Ross and Kelly as well as two- and three-part harmonies. It’s the final track on that CD, and in a nice bit of arrangement led directly into the CD’s opener “Zaliubih Si Edno Libe,” a song by Blato Zlato whose title means “Through The Marsh.” Cook’s droning solo violin intro led into languid three-part vocals, which then opened up into an upbeat dance number.
The second half of the show also opened with an a capella section, “Pusta Mladost,” which they began slowly before kicking into a fast tempo in five beats with the full band. The second set also included a jazzy arrangement of the Bulgarian “Doncho,” their full-band arrangement of “Ajde Jano,” an emotional song in 5/8; and a preview of their upcoming album with “Gjura Beli,” the band’s song about climate change and the danger it poses to their hometown of New Orleans. For an encore they presented a popular choice, “Shto Imala K’smet Stamena,” which got everybody who knew the dance up and on the floor.
Opening the show for Blato Zlato was the Portland folk-punk-cabaret band Three For Silver, fronted by the unlikely duo of gravel-voiced Lucas Warford and his National resonator bass and dulcet-toned singer and accordionist Willo Sertain. They were joined on a short but energetic and entertaining set by fiddler Greg Allison and a husky fellow who played clarinets, both B-flat and bass varieties. Raucous and noisy fun in the Mood Area 52/Devil Makes Three vein, and a good choice to warm up the crowd for Blato Zlato.