Songwriter and guitarist Paul Margolis and accordionist John Shock have been playing music together for almost 30 years now. Starting with Shock’s band Two Legs, then The Polkats, and now with The Stone Hill All-Stars, they have been at the helm of some of the best roots-rock bands in Baltimore.
Their blend of cajun-flavored polka lies somewhere between Ry Cooder, Los Lobos, and The Pogues—plus polka. They swashbuckled through a dozen different kinds of traditional music all while retaining a distinct Baltimore flavor. The Stone Hill All-Stars, Margolis' and Shock's most recent band, is the most Baltimore Baltimore band I know of, and Margolis is without a doubt one of the city's smartest songwriters, and probably the funniest. Shock and Margolis spoke about the origins of their collaborative efforts at Shock's house in Mount Washington.
"I moved back to Baltimore from Los Angeles in 1987 and I called up my childhood friend Steve Raskin and told him I was back," Margolis recalls. "Steve was playing music with some guys and he invited me to jam with his band at a rehearsal one night, which turned out to be Two Legs. And as soon as I played with John I thought, I want to play music with that guy. And so I started sitting in with Two Legs playing lead guitar, and I ended up producing their first album in my home studio."
The Polkats grew out of Two Legs, basically starting as a side project when Shock asked Margolis to learn some Tejano music, adding John's older brother Joe and his first cousin Mike Barth to the group, along with Two Legs guitarist Grady Harris. For a while Two Legs and The Polkats co-existed, playing separately and on bills together at times, but when Harris split and moved to Europe, The Polkats became Margolis' and Shock's main vehicle. They lifted the material for their first album from a cassette Shock's friend had given him. That tape was "Saturday Night San Antonio," a collection of Tex-Mex dance music released on Folkways Records in 1982.
"It's border music, essentially," Shock says. "On the Mexican side they call it Norteño, on the Texas side they call it Conjunto, but then there was a more modernized form, it might not even have an accordion, it was like pop music, and they would call that Tejano. They all sort of bump up against one another and have similarities but also important differences. We were learning Conjunto music. But we weren't learning it with any sort of intent to be authentic, or to 'get it right.' It was fairly reckless. Very reckless. It wasn't Polish polka music and it wasn't authentic border music, it was a mishmash of whatever we felt like playing."
Right before their first tape was released, Musician magazine named The Polkats the Best Unsigned Band in America. They started receiving more attention and playing more gigs as a result, and were courted by several prominent record labels, though nothing ultimately became of it. By then, Margolis was a father of two and had entered law school, and Joe Shock, their drummer, had left the group to be replaced by Two Legs alumnus Steve Raskin. Things slowed down and they released a second album in 1994, "Low Man," incorporating country music into the mix and more original songwriting.
"That album ended up being like bluegrass music with the wrong instruments," Shock says, "you know what I mean? An accordion instead of a banjo. And my cousin is great at singing harmonies, so we did some three-part harmonies and it worked well. We started doing some songs I had on a Woody Guthrie album, and started doing more country music. We were writing more and the stuff we learned originally got pushed to the side as we began to write more of our own stuff."
Shortly after the release of "Low Man," The Polkats petered out and Shock moved to Texas, then to Louisiana, where he taught in a high school and soaked up the sounds of those states' rich musical heritage.
"I was listening to a lot of cajun music, zydeco, border music, New Orleans rhythm and blues, and jazz," Shock remembers. "I used to go see Henry Butler a lot when I lived in New Orleans, and I would go see Ramón Ayala, the famous Mexican musician." After 10 years down south he came back home to Baltimore where he rejoined forces with Margolis.
"John and I had been talking before he came back from Louisiana about wanting to work together again so when he came back and everything got settled he and I got together and started learning new tunes," says Margolis. They recruited Dan Naiman, Hoppy Hopkins, and eventually the guitarist Tim Pruitt to form The Stone Hill All-Stars. "When I moved back to Baltimore with my wife and daughter, we moved to Stone Hill (near Hampden) into these 100-plus-year-old stone duplexes that housed mill workers at one time. And that's where we rehearsed and got our name from," says Shock. "We thought we were safe in asserting that we were the best band in a four-square-block area."
By now, Margolis and Shock have their creative process pretty well down. Margolis is the principal songwriter and Shock does the arrangements and reworks them when he sees fit. All of these years of playing together have culminated in a sound completely their own, and a band that can go into the studio and cut an album's worth of tunes live in one day, as they just did with "Away," the group's third and latest record.
Margolis is an imaginative and droll storyteller, and many of his songs take place in Baltimore. 'Mis Amigos Crujientes' is a lobster odyssey that follows a group of crustaceans traveling east along Route 50 back to the ocean after escaping from a restaurant tank, smelling fish sticks and chatting up snails along the way. 'Jones Et Al v Petrie' is set in Homeland, and chronicles a class-action lawsuit filed against a home builder who built all of the houses in the neighborhood on a fault line, resulting in a plumbing disaster. But the home builder, Petrie, goes bankrupt and nobody gets a dime, so this guy sets about trying to fix everything himself but eventually the new pipes suffer the same fate as the old pipes. It sounds believable, but Margolis made the whole thing up. "My wife asked what that song was about," Margolis says, "and my son answered, 'It's like all his other songs, everything is irretrievably fucked up.'"
"I really like the fact that Paul's songs are not full of a sort of false cheeriness," Shock says. "They are not depressing by any means, but they are not chock-full of inane optimistic messages. I kind of imagine the last verse of 'Into This World' as a creation myth—like where do we all come from? We came from a guy on the roof of a building who picked a seed from between his teeth and spit it into the gutter. And that's what exploded, that's the big bang."
"I've seen stranger religion premises," Margolis adds.
When I ask them about the differences in playing now versus then, Shock replies, "An essential element of what The Polkats did was youth. I can hear it when I listen to it. And that's an essential element of a lot of rock music. We are not as young as we were but the pleasures are more subtle and they are different. I think the All-Stars is better than anything we've ever done. It doesn't have that youthful abandon, but it's not serious either. I enjoy playing now more, playing better, and listening more. We know more material than any band I've ever played with. I think we could play for five hours straight."
The Stone Hill All-Stars perform at the Creative Alliance on Jan. 30 with Sleepy LaBeef.