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Monday, July 27, 2009

Richard LaValliere’s Mosh-Pit Polka

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Between playing in Milwaukee's premier punk-rock band, The Haskels, and moving on to the city's exemplary post-punk band, the Oil Tasters, Richard LaValliere could have written his own ticket in this town. But by the late 1980s, when he moved to New York City, the ticket had already been punched several times over.

"It was a point where all the bands that had been around had broken up and reconfigured several times, with members recombining and recombining," LaValliere says. "It seemed like hillbilly incestuousness. If I didn't want to keep repeating myself, I'd have to find new horizons."

Since arriving in New York, the bassist-guitarist-singer-songwriter has opened a new horizon every few years. He continued with his flair for smart, oddly humorous rock in bands like Flip Top Five and Triple Forbidden Taboo before switching to country with the Zodiac Desperados. Since then, he's played guitar with a Gypsy woman singer from Istanbul, until she suddenly split for Australia, as well as guitar in a jazz duo with a multilingual Swedish singer who returned home to raise a family. Around two years ago, he decided to draw from memories of Wisconsin by forming Polkafinger.

"It's always been on the back of my mind. I'm always playing polka mix tapes at work," LaValliere explains. "I like the music for its slamming beats and clever lyrics. And besides, it gave me a chance to play bass, which I hadn't played in years. What a reliefI don't have to change those six strings every week."

Without too much trouble, LaValliere recruited Soraya Finger on rollicking, roller rink keyboards and, keeping a simple but lively beat, Madi Finger on drums. Polkafinger has the polka field pretty much to itself. "We're a scene of one," LaValliere says. "People here think they know of polka and they think it's pretty lameuntil they hear it. We get the jaded little hipsters polka-diving in the pit."

LaValliere has brought a uniquely askew sensibility to every genre he's worked in, pushing the mundane across the sharp edge of absurdity. In the context of polka, "Who Stole the Kishka" and "In Heaven There Is No Beer" are scarcely distinguishable from LaValliere's original songs. "Polka is on the verge of being a dying form. I'd like it not to be," LaValliere says. "I keep wondering how far I can take the form and still call it polka."

Polkafinger plays Shank Hall on July 31 with The Blackholes Power Polka Machine.