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Vigorous violin

Josef Kessler is an eclectic with style to spare

by Bryan Reesman

With his giant bush of hair and his fiddle bow flying, 25-year-old string virtuoso Josef Kessler has been a familiar sight on Boston stages in the past five years. A musical chameleon, Kessler has freelanced all over town (including a gig with the string section of Plant & Page in their recent FleetCenter shows). He served time in the psychedelic/Cajun/klezmer outfit Hypnotic Clambake; recently he's been working with the traditional Celtic band Sunday's Well and renowned Celtic-eclectic punks Boiled in Lead.

For a hint of Kessler's virtuosity (as well as versatility), check out BiL's Antler Dance (Omnium). On "Walk Through the Door," his fiddle follows the racing hard-rock riff and transposes up the register, chasing guitarist Adam Stemple, then breaks into a sweeping folkish melody, taking the tune into the next verse. Kessler introduces the Middle Eastern "Neda Voda" with delicate, electronically enhanced buzzing double stops and sweet harmonics. Listen to his many different performances in sequence and he might sound like a dozen different players.

The son of a Jewish cantor, Kessler draws his eclectic musical background from both his musical schooling and his heritage. "I was six years old when my dad brought me a violin and said, `This is what you're going to do,' and I said okay," Josef explains from a gold-colored pay phone in Las Vegas, a stop on the recent BiL tour. "I studied classical violin for 10 years. In college, I started playing Yugoslavian folk music and then got into other kinds of folk music for the violin."

After two years of studying math at Tufts, he left to pursue music full-time. Playing in Harvard Square, he not only was able to support himself, he made connections that led to gigs in clubs, both solo and with other groups. In 1990, he joined Hypnotic Clambake, with their often parodic Cajun/klezmer mix and "songs about food as well. I think the idea was that food is a very entertaining subject that people can relate to."

Kessler left the Clambake in 1992, after joining the Minneapolis-based Boiled in Lead. BiL's raucous-yet-refined eclecticism, defined by rock aggression and extensive knowledge of world musics, fits Kessler to a T. So does their flamboyant, punkish stage presence, which can confuse some members of more traditional folk audiences. In BiL, Kessler dances frenetically and often moves into the audience with his blue fiddle, both playing for people and confronting them, invariably winning them over.

Kessler's confrontational style extends to band members as well. He recalls one ultimately happy run-in with BiL singer/guitarist Stemple. During a show in Albuquerque, "at the end of playing the first part of an Irish medley, I was like `Adam, one more time.' He said no, so I went into the next tune. After that I was kind of mad, so I said, `Fuck you!' And Adam said, `Oh really? Fuck me?' So he decided to slam into me. Then I unplugged his pedals, and he came over and played my wah-wah." The audience's response? "They were dancing; it was cool."

Most recently Kessler played in the string section (along with other "crossover" locals like Mimi Rabson and Tracy Bonham) for Plant & Page, who had an eight-piece Arabic ensemble they toured with, "and they wanted to book a string section in Boston that was familiar with Middle Eastern music. So they hired a half-dozen or more violinists who weren't straight-ahead classical players. We actually jammed backstage with the Arabic players."

And what was the show like? "There was this moment that I had a break. I looked up and thought, `Wow! There's Led Zeppelin right in front of me.' And then I thought, `I gotta work here. I've got to come back in 30 seconds.' A lot of us were jumping around up there and laughing. We couldn't believe we were actually playing those tunes."

During the big gig, the fiddler became aware that his approach to playing is very similar to that of Jimmy Page. "When Jimmy hits certain notes, he really looks out at the audience and is very aware of those notes, and so the audience becomes aware of those notes as well. It's very conscious entertaining. That's what I'm doing up there as well. Whether it's a traditional Bulgarian tune or an American bluegrass tune, I look at it like those notes are the reason I'm up there on stage.

Someone was saying this the other day: an important thing you do as an entertainer is not necessarily to make people happy, but you show them on stage it's acceptable to have emotions. If it's a sad song, then people get sad, and that's good. If it's a happy song, then people are happy." Thus he doesn't attempt to pander to audiences. "It's ultimately self-limiting, because what they want can be what you want. Actually, I find that the audience is looking for something; they're looking for quality up there. Quality is not just McDonald's. They want a complex performance."


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