Bella’s Bartok are the unexpected caravan around the last river bend in a strange and sun dappled wood. They are the old world circus come to town- with tents, acrobats and the whistle of calliope. They’re the dream you don’t want to lose, but can never quite hold on to. And they’re taking over the gypsy punk scene one rabid fan at a time.
This Northampton, Massachusetts-based band fuses gypsy-folk, punk, rock and roll, and beautiful chaos to put on one hell of a show. Limber up before you go, you won’t sit down once. Front man Asher Putnam blends a sort of Che Guevara meets Freddie Mercury style with mind melting melody. Dan Niederhauser handles both bass guitar and upright bass as well as vocals and is typically covered in glitter. Amory Drennan takes on trombone, banjo, backing vocals, and, along with Gershon Rosen on trumpet, dancing. Chris “Fancy” Kerrigan plays guitar, sings unearthly harmonies, and flings himself into the air quite a lot, while Crisco sits behind the sparkliest drum kit known to man. And then there’s Porkchop. Yes, Porkchop.
Saera Kochanski, or Porkchop as she’s known and loved, recently stepped into the Bella’s Bartok arena carrying an accordion. Despite having instruments in her hands well before she could even spell accordion, it wasn’t until the band asked her to run away with them in the autumn of 2016, following the departure of band member Jesse Putnam, that she had ever struck a note on one. You’d never know. She owns her piece of the stage, infusing the room with the wonderfully eerie wheeze only an accordion can bring. She tells me that banjo is definitely more in her wheelhouse but says of her hastily acquired accordion skills, “picking up that Renaissance monstrosity has been nothing but a healthy and exciting challenge.”
Kochanski is no stranger to the indie music scene, she is the creator of Wishbone Zoe which is described as an auditory/visual avant-indie neuron carnival. Talk about other worldly, Wishbone Zoe tangles the webs of our deepest subconscious into hauntingly wonderful sounds. Raised by a visual artist and a musician, it is no surprise that she would create such a haunting, visceral sound.
Taking up with Bella’s Bartok seems like an inevitable progression for this undefinable artist. The band has a reputation for being, and being adored by, The Strange Ones (also the title of one of their songs). They are bold, off center, and they are not shy about using their music and their influence to take on controversial topics. They croon about atheism, love, obsession, death, sex, politics, heck they even have a song about hobbits.
Much like Kochanski and her Wishbone Zoe, Bella’s Bartok are notoriously hard to categorize. A recurring thread throughout the many reviews that have been written in rapturous praise of these melodious misfits, is the difficulty in capturing the indescribable essence of what they create. One review attempts to pin them down saying, “a carnival of sound and sweat and something intangible, beguiling, is what drives people to see this band again and again. It’s what makes the room move as one giant serpent bewitched by the snake charmers at the helm. Bella’s Bartok aren’t just a band, they’re an enchantment.” It is this element of enchantment that makes Kochanski such a seamless fit.
Then there is the matter of being the lone woman on a stage dominated by men. It is no secret that the music world tends to skew to the masculine, and Kochanski is no stranger to this. In her own words, “I believe it’s still a very important and self-honoring responsibility for any non-male musician to demand in everything they do to not be treated any differently than a male musician. The idea of normalizing non-male presences in music–through things like declining to have gear carried for you and getting savvy with gear, electronics, and the booking and interpersonal communication side of the industry–is how the gender revolution catches up in the music world.”
Bella’s Bartok, she goes on to say, “are a leftist punk band at heart and its members are all intelligent people and experienced road dogs who I feel, unlike with other all male bands I’ve worked with in the past, respect me for the coworker, friend, and professional I am as well as encourage me to use this position I have with them to make my voice as a feminist musician heard.”
It’s a voice worth seeking out. Just as Bella’s Bartok are a band worth putting at the top of your to do list. All the pretty words in the world could not do justice to the tapestry of sensory delight these musicians weave. It is something more than just music, it is community, identity, a way of looking at the future through the lens of the past, and damn you sure can dance to it.