Someone watching Circus Brothers live
Circus Brothers rocked the stage in their debut Prague performance Friday night. Opening for them was a slightly more traditional Balkan-style act, Oranžáda (pronounced Orange-ahda). Circus Brothers is a breakaway act of the once locally famous Circus Problem. It seems that some members of Oranžáda are also members of Circus Brothers, or vice versa, or perhaps Oranžáda possibly refers to a drink sponsoring the groups. It's all really difficult to tell at this point, but I'm sure in time, everything will be illuminated.
The show begins
The show started with (possibly) Oranžáda playing in the upstairs hall, trying to round up those just hanging out and party-goers who were ready to start. It's one of the huge difficulties of playing at Rock Cafe, where the concert was held. There could be a massive orgy led by Steven Tyler and Marilyn Manson going on down on the main stage on the bottom level, and no one in the rest of the bar would ever know. So going up and playing through the crowd on the main floor was a premium and excellent tactic, since it was clear that many people hanging out in the bar were suffering under just that delusion of boredom (for those keeping track, the other huge difficulty of Rock Cafe is that their beer is utter swill).
Oranžáda starting the warm up
Much of the crowd followed them down the stairs, where they continued their unplugged marching show in the basement before finally moving into the music club room. Instead of getting up on stage, they stayed down below with the crowd, trying to get everyone worked up and ready to start. When they were done though, the crowd was left hanging for some thirty minutes until finally the Circus Brothers got their act on the stage. This was a bit of a downer and a missed opportunity. Everyone was all riled up and energized, only to have to wait and chat in near silence, with only some radio playing top 40s. It wouldn't have been that big of an issue if it weren't for the aforementioned problem of playing at Rock Cafe: the beer.
Getting the crowd ready to go
A background to Balkan
When Gogol Bordello hit the scene, much of the Western world only had exposure to Balkan music through Emir Kusturica movies and Goran Bregovic soundtracks. According to the American psyche, the Balkans were a scene of tribulation and darkness, a wild land untouched by the spread of NATO and gayropa.
Fast forward some years and Gogol Bordello has reached international super-stardom, while half of the former Yugoslav countries are either member states or on some sort of plan to join the European Union and/or NATO. When I traveled to the area some years ago, I was expecting some disaster porn, to see something far more depressing and worn out, but was amazingly and pleasantly surprised. All the nations there are vibrant and interesting in their own ways, with energetic music and friendly people being par for the course. The new cultural opening though made it clear why Balkan elements would easily fit into Western punk and ska.
With Gogol Bordello playing no small part, alongside the 2000s wave of post-war New York City immigrants that could finally afford music equipment after enough dishwashing, a new generation of “gypsy punks” have been inspired to start up their own Balkan style bands. The style isn’t just in NYC anymore. With the configuration of Beirut, DeVotchka, Slavic Soul Party!, and others in the States, Europeans have answered the call on their own music scene, tapping Balkan brass and turbo folk styles for new inspiration. It's a weird feedback loop of style. Some unknown European folksy element goes to the United States, gets distorted, misunderstood and exploded, and then returned to Europe in a hip new fashion and style, granting it some sort of bizarre rebirth.
The Circus Brothers rocking it
This musical migration has hit Prague pretty hard in recent years, with bands like Circus Problem and Oranžáda coming on the scene. As happy as I am about that, being a huge fan of Gogol Bordello, Leningrad, and the like, I was quite excited to discover Circus Problem a few years back at a street festival in Vinohrady when I first moved here with my wife.
A Circus Problem
We followed them along, hitting nearly every one of their local events and watched them emerge as a local gypsy punk band to a near spectacle event, trying to have some real circus problems, while stilt walkers and jugglers walked amidst them and they painted up their faces a few times in almost ICP style. Their real break was when they got on board with Tullymore Dew as a sponsor, which pushed them to go on a guerrilla street marketing rage, running into bars, playing one or two songs, running out, playing lots on the street. Before we knew it, they went from filling up a small pub to filling up huge music clubs, packed from wall to wall, even more than some international bands we’ve seen.
It was quite a tragedy for us when it was announced that they had broken up. It felt like a personal blow, being that they were one of the first bands here we really enjoyed.
I won’t get into the details of the breakup. The main frontman, Jirka Cevela, apparently had had a dispute with some of the other members. It seemed there was finance involved, which is usually the devil in any group. They parted ways and formed two more groups. Cevela kept Circus Problem and some of the other guys formed Circus Brothers. Cevela accused Circus Brothers of stealing his songs and changing their lyrics, and it seems a great deal of bad blood remains.
the replacement seems warmed up and sweating
Without Cevela, Circus Brothers really is a different band. It was Cevela’s voice and accordion playing that really gave a sound to Circus Problem that Circus Brothers doesn’t quite have. Which doesn’t mean they’re not as good, they’re just a different band, and the more they recognize that and break from their past, the more I hope they can reconcile.
That long pause after Oranžáda seemed endless. I could have drunken three beers during the break. I would have too, if we were at some other place besides Rock Cafe. I began to wonder if they were adding water to the beer, that's how awful it was. I was beginning to think I should request bottles of American beer.
Look Rock Cafe, no one's drinking your beer for a reason
But just before I went down that dark path, the Circus Brothers finally made the stage. And all said and done, it was a pretty awesome show, adeptly reviving the energy they had lost during the break.
Some of their songs did seem to be directly pulled out of the Circus Problem originals. And for some reason, they decided to change up one of the songs my wife and I really can’t stand—with a whiny refrain of “Thank you!” in Czech over and over—and they managed to keep it in such a way that we still didn’t like it.
They also sorted around a few of the other songs to much greater success and in my opinion, they changed the songs enough to make them all originals in their own rights. Let’s be honest, when it comes to folk music, there isn’t really anything that original. We just take a I-IV-I-V progression and replace it with a I-V-I-V and woah, suddenly it's my song and no one else's! No, the originality in folk music comes from the lyrics, not the progressions, motifs, or flourishes. And the Circus Brothers have done enough on that—they’ve put in their own lyrics (except on the "Thank You" song).
Another pleasure is that the violinist, Martin Sedlák, gets a lot more mic time now. He's an easy crowd pleaser and keeps everything diverse and interesting enough, even when he's not wearing his traditional horse mask.
The violinist grabs the mic
The biggest change, of course, was the replacement for the former singer and frontman Jirka Cevela (at this point, I'm giving up writing Czech names as I can't figure out how to write the capitals with the diacritics and all), with one Elias Jerabek. At first I had a hard time jibing with his presence on stage. On the one hand he evokes a kind of 1950s Italian mafia thing. But on the other hand, he kind of comes across as the 1990s Serbian guy trying to be a 1950s Italian mafia guy, which goes right along with the baritone player’s green track suit. He sounds technically better than Cevela in singing, but it’s that technically that can get you hanged in the world of music. The best vocalists are never the most technically best. In a world ruled by Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and Louis Armstrong, we can’t forget that the raw edge of a vocalist is usually better. And for that, I miss Cevela’s singing. However, Jerabek seems to bring kind of a hip-hop vibe to go along with everything, and he's certainly got his own class and a guitar, so I look forward to where the Circus Brothers go from here with their new vocalist.
He seems pleased with the show, and he should be
I expect the Circus Brothers to be playing a lot around Prague soon. You can catch them also at the festival Rock For People and keep up on their latest with their Facebook page.