Though he was confused by the inclusion of some odd song selections ("The Devil Went Down to Georgia"???), Judge Bill Gibron still found this polka presentation a danceable treat.
Hoop De Doo? More like Whoop De Doo.
Call this critic old fashioned, but there is something inherently odd about any artist who wants to push the boundaries of their particular genre…especially if the art form in question is the happy, peppy party music known as polka. While ethnic divides within the sound's cultural heritage are perfectly acceptable (the differences between Polish and Slovenian approaches can be pretty astounding), trying to incorporate rock, Tex-Mex, zydeco, bluegrass, or any slightly similar format into the mix seems antithetical to selling the music to people unfamiliar with its basics. Oddly enough, this is longtime superstar Jimmy Sturr's approach to polka in a nutshell. Using a big band "orchestral" format, overloaded with horns, brass, and an errant violin, the Grammy-winning wonder has obviously parlayed this concept into a very successful career. Now in his fourth decade as a performer, Sturr has a weekly polka showcase on something called RFD-TV, otherwise known as the 24 Hour Cable Network for Rural America (no joke). While this is usually a half hour of music and mirth, this 65-minute special seems to illustrate the typical Sturr performance: a Vegas-style revue with guest vocalists, lots of genial goofiness, and a broad spectrum of songs and styles.
For many, this will be a premiere musical treat. Sturr's band is nothing if not accomplished. They tear through classics like "The Clarinet Polka" and "Hoop De Doo" with a proficiency that's never robotic or routine. Even when they bend the boundaries of the genre, and give us the rather nasty novelty number "Guacamole" (with lyrics that are incredibly suggestive) or "Thibodeaux and His Cajun Band," we admire their skill and dexterity. But something seems amiss here. Sturr has seemingly sapped all the fun out of this music, making it so highly polished and professional that the concept of dancing along seems almost sacrilegious. Indeed, when a couple starts to bop along to the beat, they seem strangely out of place. Even more disturbing is the weird one-off attempt at melding Charlie Daniels with Frankie Yankovic. Sturr actually allows his violin player a solo moment in which he serenades us with a stultifying version of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." While it makes sense when you later learn that Sturr has his headquarters in Nashville and tends to champion other country artists, the song just doesn't fit. The interpretation is tacky, and the over-the-top antics of the band really belittle their otherwise exemplary artistry.
This is not to say that Sturr can't move beyond the old stalwarts like "The Beer Barrel Polka," "The Sugar and Spice Polka," or Myron Floren's "Champagne Polka." Indeed, the Tex-Mex and zydeco numbers fit perfectly within the ethnic folk music mix. But why offer the "Theme from Ice Castles"? Why take on the ancient chestnut "Personality"? "Waltz Across Texas" is even a stretch, especially when juxtaposed with standard sing-alongs like "The Metropole Polka." In fact, Sturr and his band sound better taking on the big band swing classic "Sing, Sing, Sing" than they do chugging through the "Pennsylvania Polka." Obviously, trying to be everything to everyone has garnered this longtime bandleader/vocalist/musician a devoted cult of followers and a slew of awards (he has 15 Grammys in all, including a record-breaking streak of six consecutive Best Polka LP honors), and there's no denying that the demographic that supports this sort of non-mainstream music doesn't care if it careens ever so slightly over into other genres. But for a polka purist like yours truly, this appears detrimental. Maintaining the integrity of an art form is just as important as expanding it, yet Sturr seems lost in his desire to foster both aims. It makes this live performance inherently entertaining, but also keeps us from experiencing the true joys of an ethnic folk music passionately played.
Since this is a professional production with proficient audio and video work, the DVD version of Jimmy Sturr Live is colorful and lively. The 1.33:1 full-screen image provided by Kultur is clean and clear of any analog defects, while the Dolby Digital stereo 2.0 sound is full, if a little flat. The mix itself favors the horns and the woodwinds, leaving the voices and the all-important accordion more or less lost in the sonic soup. With nary a bonus feature to be found, and a generic approach to the scene selection (naturally, it is based on songs), we have a bare-bones presentation that fans will find perfectly acceptable. Anyone wanting to learn more about the man or his musicians will have to be satisfied with the basic ad copy on the DVD cover.
Honestly, one has to give Jimmy Sturr his full and unadulterated due. He has taken one of the many substantive subcategories of music and made an entire career out of it. Few rock and roll musicians can claim the career he's had, and they have the entire pop culture carnival at their disposal. While it may not satisfy everyone's sonic sweet tooth, and it combines too many divergent styles, this is still a lively hour of expert craftsmanship. Some of the joy may be missing, but you'll be bouncing in your seat, which in the end is what Sturr is striving for. For him, polka is about having a good time, and you'll indeed have one, despite all efforts to the contrary.
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