At a rave, typically, the dancers move in place and the lights and smoke move around them to produce the trippy, disorienting feeling. At a polka hall such as Maryland's
, there's no smoke and the lights are stationary, but the dancers spin round and round to produce a very similar sensation. Last Saturday night, after an especially vigorous version of "The You're Gonna Cry Polka," my dance partner had to lean over, hands on knees, to stop the lights inside her head from spinning. But when she straightened up again, there was a grin upon her face.
The band was
, 12-time Grammy nominees and one of the biggest acts in the insular world of polka. Though Gomulka is now based in Western Massachusetts, he was born and raised in the southwest corner of Chicago, which is where he founded his group in 1980 and named it after the distinctive "push" style of polka he invented. The sound is marked by the anticipatory shove the drummer gives to the beat and by the bright, twin-trumpet statement of the melody.
Most polka bandleaders are accordionists, but Gomulka is a trumpeter, a reflection of the importance of brass riffs in his "push" sound. Standing on the riser in the cavernous Blob's Park, the short, stocky bandleader and fellow trumpeter Mike Evan opened "Helena Polka" with a blistering two-horn introduction that seemed a cross between an R&B hook and a mariachi fanfare. Gomulka's brother-in-law Dave Raccis goaded the beat forward on the drums and Matt Rosinski further upped the tension with brisk, eighth-note chords on the piano accordion.
Gomulka sang the next number, "With This Ring," in both English and Polish. Polka comes in different national flavors, and the Polish style that Gomulka was born into is faster and livelier than its German counterpart. He has a modest, likable tenor, though his vocals are smoother and milder than many listeners would like. But instrumentally, his attack has plenty of bite, giving the hard-charging Polish tempos some real teeth. And when he switched to clarinet for "The Clarinet Polka," "You're Gonna Cry," and "The Broken-Hearted Waltz," his lyrical woodwind tone on the tricky descending lines contrasted nicely with Evan's brassy phrasing.
As the expansive wooden parquet floor filled with couples, most of them giving a little hop on the three-beat, the quintet kicked into a higher gear, stringing tunes together into extended medleys, "pushing" faster and faster as the dancers spun more and more, reaching a dizzying bliss achieved by only a few ravers.
Another award-winning polka bandleader, Wisconsin's Steve Meisner, brings his group to Blob's Park Nov. 21. For more info visit blobspark.net.