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Felons and Gypsies: Balti Mare and the Baltimore String Felons at the Sidebar March 19

March 30, 2010

Balti Mare is a group of Eastern European shepherds who were granted supernatural powers of musical talent by a gypsy witch and relocated to the United States a few years ago to share their gifts with the rest of the world. At least, that’s the backstory of the 7-piece band as it was given to me by singer/guitarist “Armani Crucescu,” which I wouldn’t have believed even if I didn’t know his real name and that he’s been kicking around in various Baltimore bands for years. But goofy fabrications and cultural appropriation aside, Balti Mare’s recent show at the Sidebar was so fun and entertaining that how many of the band’s members may or may not have authentic roots in the music they play just wasn’t worth thinking about too much.

Throughout its hour-long set, Balti Mare worked up an increasingly intense and festive froth with every song, despite starting out at a pretty high level of energy even with its soundcheck. Mixing traditional songs with originals, the band showed its knowledge of and affection for the music it interpreted, particularly in songs that heavily showcased the violin, accordion, and Darbuka goblet drum. Meanwhile, the more rock-oriented material came off a bit like Firewater with an even stronger international influence. The Sidebar isn’t the kind of venue that often erupts into a dance party, but midway through Balti Mare’s performance, most of the room was moving, and as the crowd thinned out slightly toward the end, those that remained just swung each other around more wildly.

Earlier in the night, the Baltimore String Felons offered their own unique twist on folk traditions, theirs being more distinctly American. And what’s so refreshing about the weirdo folk acts in Maryland, as opposed to say New York or California, is that we’re not so far from Appalachia that the musicians seem more connected to those influences, and more likely to have actual family roots. The String Felons, with their fiddle and banjo twang, have a definite mountain sound in their so-called “inner city doomgrass,” even with its oddball twists, including songs that detail the assassination of JFK or choruses that howl “please don’t kill me.” And like Balti Mare, the combination of tradition and playful irreverence is what makes the String Felons work.

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