“The music of the southeastern US is not so different from the music of southeastern Europe. Black Mountain is really not as far as you might think from the Black Sea.”
So says Eric Stein, co-founder and mandolin player of Beyond the Pale, the award-winning Canadian acoustic-roots ensemble known for their unique take on klezmer, Balkan and Romanian music. The Toronto-based quintet is bringing its string- and reed-powered sound to the American South this March with an 11-day tour of festivals, theaters and clubs across seven different states. While they are kicking off their 20th anniversary year together, and have toured extensively in other parts of the US, these will be their first shows below the Mason-Dixon line. The occasion has prompted Stein’s consideration of how the band’s music relates to the region.
“Our music is rooted in ethnic folk music traditions that were integrated in community life and shaped over long periods of time by oral transmission and cross-cultural influences. The same can be said of most Southern music traditions. There are also similarities to be found in our foregrounding of virtuoso musicianship and improvisation, and in common instrumentation, with fiddle, mandolin and bass central to our sound.”
But that all feels somewhat broad - is there really a tangible connection between Beyond the Pale and Southern musical style? “I’ve always been fascinated with the music of the South,” admits Stein, citing Bill Monroe, The Meters, and the Allman Brothers as just a few examples of iconic Southern artists whose influence looms large personally, and has shaped the music of Beyond the Pale in subtle ways.
Those may be surprising references for a group most often tagged as a klezmer band. Stein is quick to note that such a label “doesn’t begin to convey the diversity of our influences and eclecticism of our sound.” Beyond the Pale’s music is refracted through a distinctly postmodern and North American lens. Whether you’re an aficionado or a neophyte when it comes to klezmer (east European Jewish instrumental folk music), BTP’s flirtations with sounds from outside that tradition make for an adventurous but down-to-earth musical mix that is best appreciated on its own terms. “We borrow freely from other musical styles, and we always try to keep things fresh with frequent shifts in dynamics, rhythms and instrumental textures. We want our audiences to expect the unexpected.”
That restless creative spark is ever-present on the band’s latest release, RUCKUS (Borealis Records, 2017), which balances their own compositions with inventive takes on lesser-known traditional material. It’s a richly textured album that captures the band’s range from upbeat village-style dance music to delicate “chamber-folk,” each track evoking its own distinct musical universe.
Yet just like that certain twang that unites American roots music, Beyond the Pale finds a unifying resonance in their varied repertoire, one underpinned by a palpable shared energy. “In our live shows, people respond as much to our interpersonal dynamic as to the music itself. We don’t do any shtick, we just play, but there is a visceral and authentic energy between us that’s infectious for audiences. They can practically see sparks flying.”
That joyful connection has kept the band developing and exploring for two decades, an impressively long run for any band, much less a group of progressive acousticians anchored in decidedly niche styles. They’ve won wide critical acclaim and three Canadian Folk Music Awards, and have brought their music to such far flung locales as Poland, Australia and Brazil. So how will it play in a region not often seen as a hotbed for East European-based sounds?
“The South is both eclectic and open-minded in its musical tastes,” Stein believes. “And I think our music has especially explicit similarities with progressive bluegrass, what some call ‘New Acoustic Music,’ which is so rooted in Southern musical sensibilities. Acoustic instrumentation and a foundation in traditional influences are the first and central aesthetic choices in both cases. But after that, anything goes.”