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Kochanski’s Open Polka Jam Celebrates a Dying Tradition

Sep. 27, 2016
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Andy Kochanski knows his South Side bar is facilitating living history.

Of the Wednesday night polka jams at Kochanski’s Concertina Beer Hall (1920 S. 37th St.) he says, “I’ve had the opportunity to help preserve a tradition that is slowly dying. The jams are truly special and old school.” 

If polka really is on its metaphorical last leg, though, you could never tell from the enthusiasm bristling through the tavern on a recent midweek visit. The festivity starts slowly around 7 p.m. with a small coterie of regulars sitting at the end of the bar near the small stage equipped with a minimal drum kit to accompany the gentleman whose accordion engulfs his midsection as he remains seated to key and billow out merry melodies. As the participants and audience increase in number, the evening’s energy increases palpably. 

“I’d say the polka jam is pretty rare,” says Kochanski, also an arborist for the City of Milwaukee. He tells of a couple visiting from Florida who spoke of an itinerant polka jam that at last settled at a tiki bar on a beach. “There are polka jams all over the U.S., “Kochanski says hopefully, but adds, “I guess you have to be in the know to find them. 

There was a time when Kochanski’s would have had a lot more local company. “I know for a fact in the past Milwaukee was dotted with polka bars,” explains Kochanski. “What is now Steny’s used to be called the Cordovox. Across the street was Louie Bashell’s Polka Palace which is now La Cage. Conejito’s was Louie Bashell’s father’s polka bar. Around the Concertina Bar there was Doc Perko’s and Russ and Darlene’s. The list goes on. Milwaukee had a rich history of polka bars.”

As the night becomes increasingly lively with a dude or two bringing their tuba and a tall, bespectacled lady working her Slovenian button box, Kochanski’s assessment as to the health of the scene he fosters locally seems all the sadder. Kochanski seems content in his realization that his drinking hole is something of an anachronism. “The Concertina is like a time machine bar, if you will. It gives us a chance to glance back and experience music that isn’t as popular as it once was and, hopefully, helps us to appreciate it a little more.”

Yet if the tavern is a time machine, it’s one with broad appeal that often enough reaches far beyond the old-time music subculture. As Kochanski tells it, “You never know who is going to show up as far as musician and spectators. There have been mainstream musicians, such as recently with Joe Jackson. I get people from all over the U.S. that come in to either just watch or sometimes they’re musicians themselves. When I find out they are a musician, I try to encourage them to go up and play and tell them they can put that on their musical résumé that they played Kochanski’s polka jam.” 

The highlight of this night may be the quite professional-looking gent with slicked-back hair and an indeterminate Eastern European accent going off stage to stand in the middle of the small dance floor to play his electrified accordion with parts lit up like neon. He sounds terrific while I’m on my second Buckler non-alcoholic beer, but for patrons wanting to get into the partying spirit with alcoholic spirits, “I have the most Polish beer you can find in Wisconsin,” Kochanski enthuses. “To go along with the polka jam I have a dollar off of my Polish beers. I also offer $2 shots of Jezynowka Polish blackberry brandy.” And for those who might like the music to be more ambient, the Concertina’s beer garden, which Kochanski claim’s to be the city’s biggest, can be a place to soak up the sounds and suds. He’s also refurbishing the tavern’s upstairs apartment to make it available to Airbnb clientele. 

Staying overnight above the home of the city’s only polka jam would be as unique as attending the event, about which Kochanski says, “The opportunity to witness a polka jam isn’t always going to be available. When these musicians are gone, you are never going to see this happen again in Milwaukee. It’s an experience so you can tell people when it’s gone you were there. It’s a bragging right!” 

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