Touries is a discussion of touring life and the memorable moments that come along with it. This week, Lemon Bucket Orkestra remembers meeting their heroes, playing a mountain, and nearly getting arrested for singing.
Lemon Bucket Orkestra call themselves "Toronto's best balkan-klezmer-gypsy-party-punk-super-band," which is always a bit tongue and cheek — of course they're Toronto's only balkan-klezmer-gypsy-party-punk-super-band. But there's another irony in there.
You do need that many hyphens to describe the 15 piece band's distinct brand of Eastern European-influenced party music, but when you see them live it all clicks instantly. The feeling they evoke — that celebratory, inhibition-destroying, we're-all-in-this-together euphoria — is damn near universal, whether you're from Toronto or some small town in Serbia. It all adds up to one of the strangest CVs of any touring band in Canada, or really the world.
"We've played in Ukraine during the protests and revolution, we've played in old folks homes in Canada, we've played for kids in an orphanage, we've played in a monastery in Korea for monks who don't listen to anything like our kind of music. And we've certainly played at very elaborate private parties and weddings of the upper echelons," says violinist Mark Marczyk. "That's one of the interesting things about being a musician for this particular group: you really get a glimpse into every single strata of society."
It also puts the Juno-nominated band in an interesting position in their home scene, able to introduce any home audience, through sheer charisma, to bands and styles from around the world they might not listen to otherwise. Tonight, before a month of touring and a month performing Marczyk and his wife's interactive guerrilla Ukrainian folk opera Counting Sheep at the Edinburgh Fringe, Lemon Bucket Orkestra takes the stage for the TD Toronto Jazz Festival. They're excited to play at home, but more excited to bring along Romanian gypsy brassband legends Fanfare Ciocarlia, a group Marczyk calls "expressive and so dynamic, virtuosic, nuanced, just funky."
It's their infectious, adaptable live show that lets them play any stage and bring their favourite bands to their stage. So we talked to Marczyk about a handful of live experiences that show just how far and diverse their reach is, from subways to mountains to — almost — handcuffs.
When a lunch invitation turns into a jam with your hero
Visit at Dragan's & coffee with Boban Marković.
Mark Marczyk: At one point we were touring through Eastern Europe and we were doing this festival in Macedonia. We were supposed to travel from Scopje, Macedonia to Berlin, Germany, which is a huge, huge drive. And we had a bunch of days where we didn't have any shows, where like a couple of shows fell through.
We're not called the Lemon Bucket Orkestra for nothing — we take lemons and we make lemonade everywhere we go. Whatever happens we're going to find a way to enjoy ourselves, to celebrate.
And so we went to this village. It's kind of off the beaten path a little bit, you kind of have to look for it. It's called Vladičin Han. And we ended up having lunch in the centre of the Roma part of town. The village is on the side of a mountain. And there's sort of the Gypsy neighbourhood and then the Serbian part of the neighbourhood. And so we went to his place and drank 8 different types of Slivovitz, had an amazing time there, met the amazing, legendary Boban Marković and jammed with this huge brass band that had won the golden trumpet at the Guča Festival, which is like this huge sort of Woodstock of brass band music in a tiny town called Guča, Serbia, every year.
It was this kind of really surreal moment because out of nowhere we got invited to the backyard of one of our musical heroes. And that came out of just playing a show and engaging with our audience, having a loose enough schedule that we kept ourselves open to those kinds of experiences. From playing with them there we actually took a bunch of songs and recordings and worked on them and they ended up being a part of our repertoire.
Playing ReLoad in Vladičin Han.
And the next year we toured in Eastern Europe again and we went back to Vladičin Han and we played at a huge festival there called ReLoad. And Boban's son Marco who now runs the band, he came up and played a couple of songs with us up onstage. It was a pretty thrilling experience. All that came out of just going over to have lunch.
Chart Attack: It seems like your band is kind of a vacuum that sucks up various different people and experiences anywhere you go. It adapts to whatever stage you're on.
It does, but with this amount of people you have to have an insane amount of planning, and so everything has to be really well organized. We have to make sure that we know as many details as possible. But then, what we do, it's almost like pro-active planning. We kind of assume that there's going to be something that goes wrong, and everybody gets into that mindset of, okay, something might go wrong and when it does we have some time to just go with the flow.
We're not called the Lemon Bucket Orkestra for nothing — we take those lemons and we make lemonade everywhere we go. Whatever happens we're going to find a way to enjoy ourselves, to celebrate. And when you put that attitude, that energy out into the universe, you find some people who are likeminded and want to do the same thing.
A party on a mountain in Northern Quebec
At Folk Sale in Northern Quebec
There was one time when we were supposed to play in Ste-Rose-du-Nord, a sort of small fjord town, really beautiful, up in Northern Quebec. There's this festival that happens there called Folk Sale, which means like "dirty folk." You know that kind of crusty, trad punk? Lots of banjos and dreadlocks and mud and psychedelics. It was this kind of festival.
We had such a busy tour that we were coming I don't even remember where from. It was such a huge drive and we couldn't find flights. The only way that we could get there on time to play the festival was if we rented a sleeper bus. So we searched, we couldn't find like anything except for this big, luxurious sleeper — a huge, huge tour bus that I think was probably more meant for proms or weddings or stuff like that. Luckily for us we had some support from the Canada [Arts] Council to go and do some touring, so we found it within our budget. We cut a bit of costs somewhere else and found this bus and ended up sleeping in this luxurious coach bus all the way to Northern Quebec.
So we pull up and it's like tents and people biking up there and all these busted up cars and stuff, and then Lemon Bucket shows up in this super, super white coach bus. We kind of felt like a bunch of assholes rolling up into this place. What's more is that it was pouring rain and it was super, super muddy. So everybody was in rain gear and covered in mud from like head to toe and we come out sparkling clean out of this white wedding tour bus. It felt really bizarre, but of course we jumped into the mud fighting right away and we had this amazing, amazing show.
After our show we paraded people down to the pier and eventually had this big afterparty and went on a bit of a hike up the mountain. And there's this sort of beautiful gazebo that overlooks the fjord and our trumpet player at the time, he had just had hip surgery. So he couldn't go and he was feeling really bummed out, so he sat down at the bottom at the dock and he waited. Unbenownst to us, he was just sitting there and waiting. We're up there, we just make it to the top by sunrise. We're with most of the bands as well as a whole bunch of fans from the festival, new friends.
We're looking at the sunrise, the sun coming up over the mountains and into the picturesque Northern Quebec landscape and from across the valley comes this blaring flugel horn playing the Roma anthem. We all just started screaming and crying. There was so much emotion in that moment. We could sort of feel him and hear him with us at that moment even though he couldn't climb up the mountain. It was so, so, so powerful.
Playing "Barrett's Privateers" on a Halifax pier
Lemon Bucket Orkestra plays next to a waterfront.
Part of what Lemon Bucket is is it's not only about the music, it is about the space. It's about inhabiting public space and private space, using music as a platform for people to reconsider and reimagine what their neighbourhoods or what any given space could be. It's not to say it should always be a celebration, but it's for them to kind of look up, look around.
I remember when we were in Halifax, this one time when we were playing close to the docks, right on the Atlantic Ocean. It kind of struck me as a little bit bizarre that there was this festival that was happening in this beautiful place but it was kind of in this enclosed tent and there's so much beauty just 30 minutes over.
So of course we did our show, and then we paraded the audience out to the dock, to the very edge of the pier. And what better place to sing Stan Rogers' "Barrett's Privateers"? So we got everybody out there and the people of Halifax sang on the Halifax pier. It was a super, super magic moment. As soon as I saw it before the show I went "okay, that's where we're going to end our show tonight."
It doesn't seem like there are a lot of shows where you just stay on the stage?
Yeah, at this point it's kind of become... I don't want to say it's a gimmick because it always comes from a genuine place. It's a huge part of our identity. It's very very rare nowadays that we just finish our songs and then finish the show and that's that. It happens every once in awhile if the energy isn't right, but most of the time we like to go down and into the audience.
Sometimes it finishes there because that's where the energy feels really concentrated, in the middle of the dancefloor, and sometimes it's up on a bar, sometimes it goes into the street, sometimes up into the mountains, sometimes into the ocean, depending on what's there and how people are feeling.
Toronto blackout anniversary shows
Taking over Union Station.
Every year along with our larger community, we do a parade to a secret location with everyone, anybody who wants to come, to celebrate the blackout of 2003. We meet at a location that we tell people about, and then we do a parade somewhere else.
The whole idea of that blackout parade is that for that moment, I don't know if you remember, when that happened, all of a sudden people came out onto the streets, people were hanging out, they were sharing food because they had, you know, ice cream. People were hanging out, playing guitar in the streets. And all the alarm systems were off so people were watching out for one another, and there wasn't too much burglary or anything like that. So it was this moment where we all kind of connected with one another. Even though it was a very difficult moment there was something that was very beautiful about that moment in Toronto's history.
Mark Marczyk with the megaphone.
So what we do is we take over a public intersection and for that day declare it a public space. The idea is to imagine "what would it be like if this were a public space, if the streetlights weren't working, if there was no electricity, if there were no cars?"
Once we took over Queen and Spadina. That's a huge intersection, so you can imagine how crazy it was with firespinners and samba bands and everything. One year we took people into the subway and down to Church and Front Street, which used to be a major trading post in the city. And then we had an impromptu set in the train station at Union Station, which was super, super memorable as well. Another year we took people across the bridge at the bottom of Roncys to Budapest Park on the other side of the Gardiner and then had this huge kind of mini festival, candlelit festival, on the boardwalk.
People didn't know what they were coming for but they come and just open themselves up to everything. Those are the most memorable Toronto moments for us, when people don't know what they're expecting, don't know what to expect, but they just kind of go with the flow.
A ticket for singing in Montreal
I had one experience in Montreal where we got a ticket. It was a weeknight and we were playing La Sala Rossa I think. We went out to play in the street, and obviously we got a noise complaint. It was ridiculous, like 11 cop cars or something showed up. We were right at the peak of a song called "Mesecina," which means moonlight. We do it often. We sing at the moon, and I get the audience to sing at the moon. What we do in the song is sing it very sweetly, and then the band kicks in really loud and everyone goes crazy.
We're down on one knee, and the cops are standing there. We were doing the show with friends of ours in Montreal called Gypsy Kumbia Orchestra, so we had, literally, like 25 brass players out on the street. It was loud. Really, really, loud. We sung this "Mesecina," I got everybody on a knee, and I got them to calm down. It was this perfect moment to stop and to disperse. The cops were okay with everything, but I looked over at the horn players and they were all waiting for me to count them in. I just wanted to do it so badly that I counted them all in, and the whole place erupted. Everybody went insane. It was a big party. We finished the song and I said "thank you," and as soon as I got off of this pillar that I was standing on the cops just threw me against the wall.
It's Montreal, right, they have a little bit of protest experience, so immediately all the people took out their phones and starting recording. The cops were a lot easier with me. I talked to them and explained what we were doing, and they were like "okay, we need to give you a ticket." It was like $160, for singing in public. I actually got a singing ticket.
By the time I got out of the cop car, some guy had gone around with a hat and collected $160 from the crowd to pay for the ticket. It was funny because the next time I was in Montreal a couple months later doing a show, I was walking down Rachel Street and this gang of bike cops drove by and were like "hey! Midnight music man!" Totally friendly.