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Kabalas: unusual in right ways


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Although The Kabalas formed just three years ago, they now are one of the Quad-Cities most popular bands.

It's probably one of the most unusual success stories in the history of the Quad-Cities.

In an era when punk, grunge and pop are all the rage, the most popular band in the area is a vaudeville-inspired ``polkadelic klezmer'' act clad in lounge lizard finery.

As odd as it seems, it's true. The Kabalas are everywhere in the Q-C. They're one of the few acts that's broken through to local commercial radio; they routinely pack area saloons; their record is a certifiable hit at area record stores; and residents from 6 to 60 can be seen at their gigs.

All this comes from a band that began with a classified ad looking for musicians who were into Bach, the Sex Pistols, the Marx Brothers and Raymond Scott (the guy who did Looney Tunes soundtracks).

That's The Kabalas -- the 3-year-old Quad-Cities band that's unusual in all the right ways. The foursome is savvy in the promotional end of the music biz, outrageously talented, amiable and possessed with a musical integrity and steadfastness you don't often find in a biz obsessed with the next big trend.

When Scott Morschhauser, Barry Wolf, Neal Smith and Joel Dick merged with the goal of playing poppy/punky versions of Jewish folk tunes and polkas, they probably were the only ones who thought it would work. However, it has worked -- in the Quad-Cities and beyond.

And it has risen to the extent that the group has built up a large cult following across the United States and Canada on the strength of its debut disc, ``Martinis and Bagels;'' has played at the prestigious South By Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas; and has been signed to Dionysus Records in Burbank, Calif.

The guys' second CD, ``The Eye of Zohar,'' recorded at Keoni's in Davenport and Penguin Studios in Los Angeles, was released on that label in September. To let people know about it, the band embarked on an unprecedented CD-release hype blitz of 15 concerts in three days, all around the Quad-Cities.

``Joel pointed out that every band does a CD-release party; it's become so affordable to put out a CD that seemingly every gig is a CD-release party, so we refused to do it,'' Mr. Morschhauser said.

``I hate insipid boredom, and nine-tenths of the music industry just bores me to tears. Not to put down anyone personally, but everything has just been done. So we thought, `What can we do that nobody's done before?' And so we came up with the idea for all the shows, and it escalated!''

Some of the newly minted tunes from ``Zohar'' that raised the most attention include ``Traci Lords Polka,'' ``Chico Marx'' and ``Ay Kabalas!''

Legendary Los Angeles DJ Rodney Bingenheimer from KROQ-FM reported the track ``Traci Lords Polka'' to the radio trade magazine ``Radio and Records'' as one of his top five picks.

``Traci Lords Polka'' also is getting air play on other commercial stations in Los Angeles, New York City and Las Vegas.

``Ay Kabalas!'' was one of the most requested songs of the year at local alt-rock station Planet 93.5 and still is in light rotation there.

One of the most interesting compositions on their album is ``The Golem,'' a six-minute, spoken-word jazz tune on the traditional Jewish tale of oppression.

``That was us just completely going out on a limb and doing something we were really into,'' Mr. Morschhauser said. ``It's a very ... esoteric song. I can just see us playing a frat and imagine us playing `The Golem.' It's like, `Here's one that's gonna knock your socks off, kids!'|''

Then again, the guys in The Kabalas never thought their exotic sonic blend would become as hip as it has. ``We never had any idea this would be so successful,'' Neal Smith said. ``Who would've thought traditional Jewish music, polkas and vaudeville would've been?''

``Most people still aren't sure how to react (when they first see us),'' Barry Wolf said. ``The first couple songs, people are in shock, they're just blank. But after a while, they warm up to it.''

The future looks kosher for The Kabalas. They were close to hooking up with Quentin Tarantino's crew for a possible soundtrack project, and a number of other Hollywood types have come calling.

``We've had a lot of nibbles on motion picture soundtracks. We also had a bite, followed by a quick cough and a Heimlich,'' Mr. Morschhauser quipped. ``But I feel confident that we're going to break through a motion picture. We're already all over college radio, but I think it's going to take that movie soundtrack to break us to mainstream radio.

``But it's not like we're going to die if we don't break mainstream radio,'' he said. ``I'm just happy that we get to make the music we want to, and I'm proud of the music we make. I think after we're dead and buried, what we've done is going to last, and that's what's important.''

-- By Sean Leary (January 22, 1998)

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