Dan Newton and his group Café Accordion Orchestra seemed to have one quip for every country represented in their first of six sets at the State Fair's International Bazaar stage on Monday. "How many of you have already had something on a stick?" asked Newton. "Well, we have CDs on a stick." Later, fiddler/mandolinist Eric Mohring introduced one of their songs as "international and bizarre."
That's a pretty good description for Newton and CAO in general. These guys really do crisscross the world in their music, playing everything from South American cumbias and Armenian and Greek folk songs to gypsy jazz and the French café music the group is more or less named after.
Café Accordion Orchestra will now take over the Varsity Theater on Tuesday to promote its eighth album, "Berets and Bongos," a CD party that's essentially an extension of its weekly Tuesday gig at the Loring Pasta Bar a couple doors down.
"When we started out, there were maybe three accordion players in town who played something other than polka, and now there are too many to count," Newton said. "There's especially more of an appreciation for Eastern European and gypsy music, thanks to groups like DeVotchKa and Gogol Bordello."
Newton started out playing piano in country and western swing bands in his native Lincoln, Neb. When he started getting booked into piano-less clubs, he picked up the accordion, leading to gigs with Celtic bands, including St. Paul's Irish Brigade. Since then, Newton has been the Twin Cities scene's go-to accordion guru.
Newton is open about the fact that he's mostly just a student and fan of all the ethnically entrenched types of music he plays, not an expert. He can't even really speak French or Spanish -- "but my fingers can," he said.
"Berets and Bongos" is a bit of a changeup for the Café Accordion crew in that it doesn't really have a concept or theme. The band's longtime collaborator Diane Jarvi sings three songs, each in a different language. There's also a fun romp called "El Bodeguero" on which both Mohring and bassist Erik Lillestol sing, but they do so in Spanish instead of French. You can see what Mohring meant by "international and bizarre."
CAO's big repertoire belies the one little instrument at its forefront, a point raised when Newton asked the fair crowd, "How many of you saw the name Café Accordion Orchestra and thought there would be eight or 10 accordions on stage?"
As numerous hands shot up, he rightfully retorted, "Isn't one accordion enough?"