Float into summer with the Yid Vicious Paddle Party

Bring your own boat and join the band as they play klezmer tunes from a pontoon for Make Music Madison day on June 21.
Members of the River Rats band play from an MSCR pontoon boat during the 2019 Fool's Flotilla.
Photo by Paula A. White.
Members of the River Rats band play from an MSCR pontoon boat during the 2019 Fool's Flotilla.

If you happen to see a klezmer-polka-strings superband pontooning down the Yahara river on the summer solstice — perhaps the tuba player is ducking to avoid yet another overhead bridge — don’t be confused. It’s not the River Alliance of Wisconsin’s annual Fool’s Flotilla, traditionally held in June; it’s the inaugural Yid Vicious Paddle Party — and you’re more than welcome to join them.

“If people have kayaks or canoes, especially folks that miss not having the Fool’s Flotilla happening in June, we hope they’ll come and float along, or just cheer from the bridge,” says Kia Karlen, a horn and accordion-playing member of Yid Vicious, which has delighted audiences since 1995 with its own spin on klezmer, a secular Yiddish folk musical tradition. Once a year for the Fool’s Flotilla, Karlen and other Yid Vicious players spin off into the River Rats pickup band with members of Hoot’n Annie String Band, V05, Madgadders and Polkalamity. It’s fun, and it’s special, and — like pretty much everything else in 2020 — it was canceled last year.

This year, thankfully, the Fool’s Flotilla will return — but not until August, as part of the new, four-day OrtonFront Fest that combines Orton Park Festival and Marquette Waterfront Festival. The River Rats will be there, but after a season of pandemic pivots, creative workarounds and painful uncertainty, they decided there was no better time to celebrate twice.

“We were looking for a fun place to play a Yid Vicious set for Make Music Madison, so I contacted MSCR to see if they might be interested in ferrying bands on pontoons as part of the event,” Karlen says. They were — Madison School and Community Recreation set aside three pontoon boats for bands to supplement the nearly 100 citywide venues hosting musicians of all genres for Make Music Madison day on June 21. But there’s arguably no more appropriate music to mark the end of a long, strange, surreal, scary trip than klezmer, which emanated from eastern European Jews in the 1800s and migrated with its musicians, picking up cultural influences born from strife and community building along the way. “It’s a quick, high energy music, and it’s also described as sort of laughing and crying at the same time,” Karlen says. “I think it has a real emotional connection to people.”

Like so many other performers, Yid Vicious lost most of their paying gigs overnight when the COVID-19 pandemic began. After a couple of months of near-total lockdown, they got the opportunity to play live again when a Dane Arts grant funded a series of “curbside klezmer” popup concerts at restaurant drive-thrus and parking lots throughout Dane County, organized by Karben 4 Brewing.

“This enabled us to help draw attention to the restaurant events in a socially distanced outdoor setting, without depending on cash-strapped restaurants to pay the band,” says Karlen. The band also played a handful of outdoor venues like Garver Feed Mill, Bos Meadery and Olbrich Gardens last fall and this spring, but over the winter they stuck to virtual events like the Overture Center’s International Fest, and the special Feb. 2 online party to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the band’s first public performance. Band members performed from their respective homes and told some great stories, but it wasn’t the same as getting together to celebrate what continues to be a remarkable run for any band.

Several members of the klezmer band Yid Vicious, in costume with instruments

Several members of Yid Vicious, a 26-year-old klezmer band in Madison. Photo by Paula A. White.

While only two founding members of Yid Vicious remain (Daithi Wolfe on fiddle and Matt Appleby on guitar), the other members have been around since the early 2000s and alumni often return to play. “It’s a big family, even though our main personnel has changed over the years,” says Karlen — and that extends to playing with friends from other bands, as they do with the River Rats. The idea to include a floating band in the Fool’s Flotilla originally came from Jake Vander Zanden, whose partner worked for the River Alliance at the time. “When I first joined it was three canoes strapped together,” recalls Wolfe. “My friend Tim had a kiddie drum set. Jake wore an old marching band hat and much zaniness ensued.”

Eventually the band upgraded to an MSCR pontoon, which it outgrew and split into two boats. “Both are still called the River Rats,” says Karlen. “The one I’ve played on is ‘Business in the Front’ (acoustic band at the front of the flotilla). The other is ‘Party in the Back’ (amplified music bringing up the rear, led by Jake).” Members are always shifting, but the music connects them all, just as klezmer always has.

After so long in various states of isolation at home, it feels more important than ever to get out and join their fellow music lovers in the most Madison place of all — on the water.

“That [celebratory feeling] is happening all over right now,” Karlen says. “It’s really joyful.”

The Yid Vicious Paddle Party takes off from the Tenney Boat House on Monday, June 21 at 5:30 p.m. and will travel to Lake Monona and back. Find more details here.

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