Last night, I saw Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird, which calls its music “Radical Yiddish Punkfolk Cabaret,” at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan. It was my eighth time seeing Berlin-based Kahn perform, including with Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird, with other musical outlets, and as an actor. Below is a recap of all eight shows. (Update: The tally is now eleven!)
While some Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird songs have discernible punk rock elements musically, that isn’t really the point. I’ve seen Kahn rock out as part of a seven-piece band, and I’m seen him solo or with little accompaniment. In Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk, Kahn explained why he thought “punk”—or “punkfolk—was a fitting label:
There’s the rejection of . . . commercial market populism: the idea of trying to make something that’s appealing to everybody. There’s the cultishness of it. There’s the idea that we are building a functional life raft for endangered ideas. . . . There’s a do-it-yourself [approach] . . . we’re not part of a larger market structure. There’s a kind of exuberant irreverence and aggressiveness to it. There’s the sardonic acid humor. There’s the theatricality of it, with trying to avoid sentimentality and nostalgia. I’d say that, to a large degree, it has to do with our willingness to engage with some dark sh*t— like, really dark sh*t. But in a way that it’s playful and serious but doesn’t have the adolescent kitsch of the way that, say, metal deals with the same issues.
September 2009 (Barbès, Brooklyn): I saw Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird for the first time at this fun, lively show in an intimate venue. As part of a seven-piece band that also included trombonist Dan Blacksberg (Electric Simcha), Kahn was joined by two electric guitarists, Vanya Zhuk (Nayekhovichi) and Avi Fox-Rosen (Yiddish Princess). The songs rocked harder with an extra oomph, especially “Yosl Ber/A Patriot.”
January 2012 (Symphony Space, Manhattan): Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird played as part of an “Artists Celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” show organized by the Manhattan JCC on MLK Day. Kahn played an unreleased song called “Among Us,” which addressed the nature of leaders and heroes and how it’s the people who have to create change. My friend Eli was so moved by the lyrics that he emailed Kahn afterward to get the song.
March 2013 (Gramercy Theatre, Manhattan): I went with my friend Dan, and this was a great show by Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird. In introducing “In Kamf,” Kahn said, “This is a punk rock tune from the 1880s. Play it f*cking loud!” As he explained in Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk, he took a Yiddish song about the struggles of sticking up for the poor and gave it a punk “treatment.” He matched the “strong” and “defiant” message with a guitar riff reminiscent of The Clash’s “London Calling.”
May 2015 (Sidewalk, Manhattan): Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird played on May Day, which was quite appropriate for an artist with songs about labor issues like “March of the Jobless Corps.” In an intimate venue with a piano onstage, the cabaret side of “Radical Yiddish Punkfolk Cabaret” was evident.
June 2015 (The Paper Box, Brooklyn): At Borscht Ball, the kickoff event for KulturFest, Kahn marched toward the stage while boldly shouting, “Nazaroff is coming!” I was cracking up because I realized that most people had no clue what he was talking about. He and other members of the band The Brothers Nazaroff performed songs from their forthcoming debut, The Happy Prince.
November 2015 (Castillo Theater, Manhattan): What better way is there to spend a birthday than seeing Death of a Salesman in Yiddish? Kahn played the role of Biff.
December 2015 (DROM, Manhattan): At the Yiddish New York Klezmer Blowout, Kahn made a guest appearance with Frank London’s Klezmer Brass Allstars. As I noted in the first blog post for OyOyOyGevalt.com, “I’ve attended some notable Jewish concerts in the last decade, but with so many YNY festivalgoers present, this was the first time where I really felt transported to another world. It was like a parallel universe where klezmer and Yiddish culture were appreciated—and rocked out to—by engaged fans in such a resounding way.”
April 2017 (Joe’s Pub, Manhattan): Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird consisted of Kahn on vocals, accordion, piano, and acoustic guitar and violinist Jake Shulman-Ment, with occasional guests. The first song with vocals featured just Kahn and Shulman-Ment, but it was evident that Kahn’s brand of klezmer has an edge to it, thanks in part to the fast tempo, his snarling in Yiddish, and saying the f-word as part of his English translation. One of Kahn’s greatest strengths is playing old Yiddish songs that offer social commentary about contemporary circumstances. He explained that when he released “Embrace the Fascists” (based on a 1931 German song) for his 2009 album, he thought it was clever to have an old song that spoke to contemporary times. Now he wished it wasn’t so clever and fitting. “[The songwriters] wrote this in 1931, about Richard Spencer,” Kahn quipped. He introduced “Sunday After the War” by noting that he wrote it during the Iraq War, for its relevance about one war, and it turned out to be pertinent to multiple things. “I hope some day I can stop playing the damn thing,” he said. Kahn has written, “I wish we did not have to sing about crippling poverty and sweatshops and imperialist war anymore. But we do. Those old songs remind us that the problems we face today are nothing new. We can learn much from those who struggled with them before us.”
June 2018 (Central Park SummerStage, Manhattan): At the Yiddish Under the Stars show, Kahn received the Yosl and Chana Mlotek Memorial Prize for Yiddish Continuity, presented by actor Mandy Patinkin. Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird’s radical, socialist message shined through in two songs off last year’s The Butcher’s Share, “99%—Nayn-Un-Nayntsik” and “Arbeter Froyen,” and what Kahn called an “oldie but baddie,” “March of the Jobless Corps.” Kahn’s quintet was joined at times by his frequent collaborators, singers Sarah Gordon and Psoy Korolenko and guitarist Vanya Zhuk. More musicians from the evening’s other acts supported Kahn for his Yiddish translation of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which has garnered nearly 900,000 views on YouTube.
June 2018 (JCC, Manhattan): This was the New York release show for The Butcher’s Share. English supertitles helped Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird get their message across more compellingly, and art from Eric Drooker was projected on the screen. Kahn repeatedly interwove the past and the present, introducing “Shtil Di Nakht Iz Oysgeshternt” (written in 1942) as “the first antifa love song.” In a particularly hard-hitting version of 1931’s “Embrace the Fascists,” Kahn sang about being stabbed by “the white nationalist’s blade,” as opposed to “the Nazi dagger’s blade” in his recorded version. For the encore, the quintet plus guests played the rousing drinking song “Yesterday Is Buried”; click here to watch. Kahn had played accordion, piano, acoustic guitar, and electric guitar during the show, and as the closing song went on, he rocked out more and more on electric guitar.
July 2018 (Museum of Jewish Heritage, Manhattan): Kahn played the quintessential Jewish radical, Pertshik (Perchik), in a spectacular Yiddish production of Fiddler on the Roof. I was struck by how much the character’s lines matched the socialist Kahn’s views. Kahn was in the spotlight for two songs: “Es Kumt A Tog (Any Day Now),” which he translated, and “Itst Hob Ikh Di Ganste Velt (Now I Have Everything).” The show is a New York Times Critic’s Pick.