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'Orkestrah'l Maneuvers 

The Molehill Orkestrah, teaming up with Flam Chen, likes it live

Dear music fan and past or future members of their audience: The Molehill Orkestrah loves you, man (or woman). Seriously. While it's a given that the energy served up by an enthusiastic crowd is a huge part of what makes live music so great, it's the quintessential ingredient in The Molehill Orkestrah's gypsy cauldron.

Thus, their brand new long player, TranScenic, is totally live and all-instrumental--eight songs gleaned from more than 60 different performances and reduced to their savory essences, ranging from the Romanian traditional "El Basso" to the klezmer standard "Chassidic Brew" to the group's own compositions, which don't stray too far afield from the aforementioned. Far afield from the rather slapdash "official bootleg" culled from their March 16, 2003, Club Congress show with NYC's Gogol Bordello, TranScenic was almost two years in the making.

Says drummer/wildman Chris Kallini: "We got to the point, almost immediately, where we totally forgot about the fact that we were trying to do a record. Which made it more natural, nothing was forced. I think if any band knows they're being recorded ... they think about that, and they're totally inhibited. They don't let go. 'Cuz the technicality of it's always on the burner, instead of 'Fuck it. I'm here, and I'm playing for you people.'"

Recorded at venues ranging from Fourth Avenue's Plush to a party hosted by "Dylan" in Portland, Ore., TranScenic is a document that clearly reflects the interplay and improvisation that are so crucial to Molehill's chemistry. "It's the energy amongst ourselves, but it's the energy of the live audience (that matters most)," says Mona Chambers, cellist/empath.

But neither performing or recording were the most difficult tasks in making TranScenic the great-sounding record it is; the editing process, while simplest conceptually, was the most difficult leg of the odyssey.

"Even picking out which cuts were gonna be on (it), we had, like, a library of possible tracks, and we just had to sit there and weed out which one we thought was the best," Chambers says. "We would sift through the stuff, and sometimes we'd know in like 10 seconds, no, that's not gonna be the one. ... But then we'd get to where there'd be all these takes of a song, and since there's so much improvisation, (each version is) really different."

With a brand new album to promote, it seems natural that these klezmer provocateurs would be performing their feisty instrumentals at a clubs, parties or cul-de-sacs nationwide. After all, they've done it every summer over the last three years.

"This would have been Molehill tour No. 4 this summer," says Kallini. "But we found ourselves really stressed out about booking this tour, and kinda fighting it in a way, like it wasn't meant to be ... (so) we decided to cancel all plans. The day after (we decided not to tour), Paul (Weir) and Nadia (Hagen) from Flam Chen come over, and (say), 'Hey, we got a gig in Montreal doing a brand new show we're composing; come with us.'"

The show, entitled The Monkey King, is the closest collaboration yet between the theatrical pyrotechnic entity known as Flam Chen and Molehill, who have worked together for years but never in this capacity. Previously, Molehill had taken pre-existing songs and melded them with Flam Chen's various set pieces. "This show, on the contrary," says Chambers, "we really wrote it together, and when they'd say, 'This is the vibe of this particular part,' we wrote new material to go along with (it).

The Monkey King has an exotic flavor which enabled them to branch out stylistically. Chambers describes it as having "an Asian feel to it ... far Eastern."

As Chambers and Kallini describe it, TranScenic represents the "closing of a chapter" for a band that is always moving forward; it's anyone's guess where they'll end up. Wherever it is, it'll probably involve an old, yet dependable bus and emotional fuel supplied by an enervated audience, hooked on the rapturous beauty of their music.

More by Curtis McCrary

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