Bands that toss an eclectic aural salad of outré cabaret fare, Gypsy folk, discombobulated blues, Nino Rota-inspired circus music and oddball punk are nothing new. Tom Waits was already mining that fertile ground back when his influential Rain Dogs LP came out in the mid-'80s. At nearly the same time, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds upped the ante on the blues-rooted side of the equation, drawing raves with a string of shambolic glosses on all things Southern and Gothic that became must-have components of the baby-boomer and Gen-X CD collection.
Today, the likes of Beirut, Gogol Bordello, Barbez, DeVotchKa, Madison's own Pale Young Gentlemen and the Georgia-bred, North Carolina-based Hellblinki Sextet are all performing their own variations on this crazy-quilt approach to indie music. It's music for rockers who've tired of rock, and judging from the dozens of violinists, accordion players and bouzouki pickers who've jumped onto the bandwagon, these bohemian musical hybrids will be with us for years to come.
The Hellblinki Sextet isn't the most aggressive or dangerous of the acts mentioned above, and it certainly isn't populated with the most gifted musicians. But thanks to tireless leader Andrew Benjamin, who's been flogging the Hellblinki concept for more than a decade, it is one of the more entertaining players in this country's loosely organized neo-cabaret scene.
Despite its name, Hellblinki has rarely performed as a sextet (today it's a trio), which is a good indication of Benjamin's habitual cheekiness. The top hat, tux and white face paint he dons in concert also underscore his preference for jokes that provoke sly smiles and knowing snickers. Some critics have called him the mutant offspring of Waits, Marilyn Manson and Frank Zappa, and when you factor in his drawled, at times electronically altered vocals and his taste for all things perverse and the peculiar, that genealogical tree is pretty accurate.
Benjamin arrives in Madison bearing a new album called Oratory that employed a variety of guest musicians during the sessions that birthed it, including a tuba player who literally mailed in his contribution. One of the more original cuts, "Wicked World," careens through a cracked Gypsy theme as Benjamin pairs up with accordionist/glockenspiel ace/sometime lead vocalist Valerie Meiss to offer a wild-eyed dissection of a crazy-yet-enticing world of dreams that's never what it first seems. Another tantalizing track, "The End," kicks off the proceedings with intimations of the grave.
Thankfully, Benjamin isn't one of those painfully obvious bohemians searching for adulation first and creative ecstasy second. He's happiest when the crowd dances beyond the witching hour, pausing only to quaff generous shots of genre-appropriate drink (aquavit, anisette and ouzo are all good choices). In that respect, he's Madison's kind of musical ringmaster: a party animal who does a mean gavotte with Bartok and Mephistopheles and also knows his alcoholic beverages.