The Val Air Ballroom in my hometown of West Des Moines, IA opened June, 1939. Admission prices were 85 cents for gentlemen & 25 cents for ladies. The Val Air was the “King” of Des Moines ballrooms, drawing the likes of Glen Miller, Louis Armstrong, and the ever popular Lawrence Welk. My great-aunt often went dancing at the Val Air – gliding around the floor on the arm of one of the GIs in attendance. While taking in the inspired sounds from Sac Au Lait and Fishtank Ensemble at the Creative Alliance last Friday (more than 70 years after the ballroom was really hopping), I felt a sort of connection to my great-aunt while she got her kicks at the Val Air.
The Creative Alliance hosts hundreds of events each year in their home next to Patterson Park. From film to music, galas to receptions, and drinks in their Marquee Lounge to artist residencies – they literally have something for everyone. I encourage you to find out more about their excellent programming, like Fishtank Ensemble and Sac Au Lait, and join them in the fun.
Sac Au Lait came right out of the gate with a bright, brassy sound from Frank Donn (trumpet), Rich Howard (trombone), and John Dierker (clarinet). Their mélange of Dixieland, swing, and big band styles had toes tapping right away. Although it took a few brave souls to start the trend, there were plenty of pleated chinos strutting around the dance floor by the end of their set. Donn, Howard, and Dierker played exuberantly with their fellow band mates: Frank Patinella (banjo), Alan Munshower (string bass), David Polimene (drums). I would have loved to hear a bit more “snap” in the wrist from Polimene when the brass and clarinet got hot, especially when Dierker really gets going to propel the rhythmic intensity as well as the harmonic. Overall, Sac Au Lait is a really fun band that I will definitely be seeking out at their regular gigs at Joe Squared in Station North.
The headliner of the evening, Fishtank Ensemble, hails from Los Angeles but brings with them an international sound that extends from Serbian, Romanian, and Transylvanian gypsy melodies to Flamenco to totally unique swing styles. The four-piece ensemble has obvious extensive training and/or experience in world folk music. Ursula Knudson, the band’s front woman, kicked off their set with an unexpected fusion of a Baroque aria with rockabilly accompaniment from Djordje Stijepovic (bass) and Douglas “douje” Smolens (guitar). Stijepovic is considered the best slap bass player in the world and seeing him live leaves me no arguments otherwise. If I thought their first piece was surprising, that was just the start of the rest of their innovative combinations and melodies. Fishtank Ensemble cycled through a wealth of tunes that got the crowd back out on the dance floor and releasing their inhibitions to the music. Some particular favorites were “Pena Andaluz”, “Opa Opa”, and their spicy version of “Fever” featuring Knudson and Stijepovic. Fabrice Martinez, their French violinist who voyaged around all of Europe in a handmade mule-drawn caravan for ten years, collecting music and experiences, is a force on stage. His intense folk style and harmonic language on violin adds so many dimensions to the ensemble’s mutual sound.
Friday’s performances from Fishtank Ensemble and Sac Au Lait at the Creative Alliance were exactly what I would like to go dancing to if I were about to kick up my heels like my great-aunt. It was a pleasure to see and hear them perform live.