3 Leg Torso's varied ethnic approach wins the hearts of music lovers, dancing fools and distinguished filmmakers
A couple of things about 3 Leg Torso are generally agreed upon. First, the group's name is pronounced 'leg,' not 'legged,' or worse Ñ 'leg-ged.' Second, there's no particular logic behind the name. 'It just popped into my head,' says the band's co-founder, Courtney Von Drehle.
The real confusion starts when the group is asked to define its genre. Von Drehle pauses and says, 'There's really no precise definition. I suppose you could say that our sound draws from Eastern European influences. But it also visits Latin, tangos, klezmer, Russian folk and modern chamber music, too.'
What sounds like a musical mess is actually one of the most impressive groups to emerge from Portland in years. Grounded by the spirited precision of Von Drehle's accordion and BŽla Balogh's violin, the group's tightly orchestrated sound has created a groundswell of passionate followers, as a recent gig at the Fez Ballroom illustrated.
Even as the opening band plays its final chords, 3 Leg Torso fans jockey for position in front of the stage, a phenomenon reminiscent of a Grateful Dead concert. And like Deadheads, 3 Leg Torso devotees need their space for the freewheeling, solo dance style that the band's sound inspires.
Once onstage, the group rips into a wildly mixed-tempo tune that soars between riotous bar mitzvah riffs and a Balkan Looney Tunes soundtrack, if there were such a thing. Listening to 3 Leg Torso is a symphonic roller-coaster ride Ñ thrilling momentum shifts and neck-snapping twists and turns, combined with the remarkable ability to stay on track.
When accordion was king
Before 3 Leg Torso came together in 1996, Von Drehle and Balogh were members of the Portland band Lobe, which they describe with a minor degree of embarrassment as an art-rock band.
The two later took to the streets, sowing the seeds of what eventually would become 3 Leg Torso.
'We used to perform duets on the street,' Von Drehle says. 'It paid surprisingly well in money and experience. But the best part of it was the really thick Eastern European accents we used.'
Pedestrians enjoyed the 'Wild and Crazy Guys' routine, but the neighboring businesses didn't. 'A bouncer from Embers once told us to move it along, or he'd call the cops; we were competing with the boom, boom,' says Balogh, whose accent came easily. The son of Hungarian emigrants, Balogh's grandfather was once the leader of a Hungarian Gypsy band.
Originally a trio that came together for an event at Portland State University, 3 Leg Torso initially was composed of Von Drehle, Balogh and cellist Gabe Leavitt, who's no longer with the group.
The current lineup includes Rob Lewis on mallet instruments, most notably the xylophone, the source of the cartoonlike qualities of some pieces. Percussionist Gary Irvine and Skip Elliott Bowman on the acoustic bass round out the quintet.
The new talent has freed up Von Drehle to also play saxophone for the group, while Balogh doubles on the trumpet. And although they're proficient on these instruments, they're both true to their original loves. 'The accordion was king before the guitar,' Von Drehle says with mock sincerity. Balogh picked up his first violin at age 4.
All of the band's members are full-time musicians. Balogh plays locally with the group Lapis, while Von Drehle contributes to the group Klezmocracy and indulges a longtime love of dance choreography by composing for Portland's Do Jump! Theater.
Wedding day discovery
Von Drehle says that although 3 Leg Torso's success has generated imitators, they'll continue to forge their own uncharted path.
'When we started, we were certainly unique,' Von Drehle says. 'And as time goes on, other groups have sampled our work, but we're expanding ours at the same time.' He points to the Bay Area's Tin Hat Trio and France's Paris Combo as groups that have a similar, ethnically rich sound.
Balogh says it's this wide range of influences that explains 3 Leg Torso's multigenerational appeal. 'Everyone can find something they like in our music,' he says.
Portland filmmaker Joan Gratz certainly did. Winner of an Academy Award in 1993 for best animated short film, Gratz approached the group to create and perform the soundtrack for her 1998 abstract animated film, 'The Dowager's Feast.'
'It was sort of a stream of consciousness film,' Gratz says. 'And when I was finished, it appeared not to have much of a structure, in which case the music would be very important.
'I listened to a lot of different groups, but then friends of mine said that they'd seen these guys play at a wedding, and that people were paying more attention to them than the bride and groom. That sold me on them. They were able to introduce structure into the film, and have it build and resolve.'
That successful collaboration led to another with Gratz, 'The Dowager's Idyll' in 2000, as well as their soundtrack for Portland filmmaker Larry Johnson's 2002 short, 'The Mustache.'
The group eventually caught the attention of John Brodie, who manages Pink Martini. Brodie says that his decision to sign on as 3 Leg Torso's manager was a no-brainer.
'I decided to work with them simply because they're so good and so well-respected,' Brodie says. 'Their music is smart, charming and beautiful at the same time. It even has elements of humor. What they do is complex Ñ sometimes even difficult and challenging Ñ and I think people respect that, and in the end, find it exciting.'