The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Features

May 17, 2014

Polka party | Three-day event will feature rising star, festival favorites

JOHNSTOWN — Polka remains a dynamic form of music in America, and Alex Meixner is considered to be one of the young guns who will keep it so.

Meixner of Palm City, Florida, will raise the roof of St. Mary Byzantine Catholic Church’s pavilion along Fifth Avenue in the Cambria City section of Johns-town when he takes the stage on May 31 for the first of four performances.

The Greater Johnstown/Cambria County Convention and Visitors Bureau and St. Mary’s co-sponsor PolkaFest, and organizers anticipate thousands of polka enthusiasts coming to the city May 30 through June 1.

Meixner is a fourth-generation musician, steeped in the Austrian style, who has no problem breaking the mold of traditional polkas.

While he has great respect for the time-honored polkas of generations past, he’s not afraid to spice things up with a beat of jazz, country, rock, reggae or hip-hop.

“Anyone coming to a polka festival is looking for a good time,“ he said.

“Whether you look out in the crowd and see people who have been married for 50 years or the twentysomethings looking for reasonably priced beer, our job is to get them on their feet to have a great time.”

Meixner, who plays as if his hair is on fire, is touring in support of his current album “Three Ring Circus.”

His new album features the sounds of Calton Pride, son of legendary country star Charlie Pride, and will not be released until after PolkaFest.

Some mature audiences sometimes are taken aback by Meixner’s style of offering a traditional polka only to change gears in mid-stride.

“It’s something when I see an 80-year-old woman give me a strange look when I put a little Guns and Roses into the middle of her favorite polka,” he said.

“Yet, I have had older people standing in a mosh pit while young audience members dance up a storm to the traditional ‘Happy Wanderer Polka’ because it’s all part of our unique circus.”

This will be Meixner’s first appearance at PolkaFest, but he is familiar with the event.

His drummer, Ed Klancnik, who also plays with Don Wojtila Orchestra, a PolkaFest regular, told Meixner how the festival marries different ethnic styles, unlike other festivals.

“When we play a festival, it’s either strictly German, Slovenian or Polish,  but never mixed like it is in Johns-town,” he said.

“The credit goes to the organizers who have been able to succeed where others have failed.”

He said he has to read the audience before breaking out to a different genre.

“We sort of ease them into it before we go into some Ozzy Osbourne or the Ramones,” Meixner said.

Jayne Korenoski, the visitors bureau’s advertising and sales director, is eager to introduce a rising star of the polka world to Johnstown audiences.

“His performance is as much a show as it is a musical performance,” said Korenoski.

“His energy and stage presence will blow people away, and we anticipate him drawing some younger audience members to the festival.”

The PolkaFest has been labeled one of the top festivals in Johnstown that has a far-reaching economic impact.

“For three days, we have people coming to Johnstown to enjoy the music,” Korenoski said.

“The festival has become known for offering a phenomenal lineup with a mix of nationally award-winning bands as well as a few local groups.”

Loyal fans have developed a love for certain groups and the visitor’s bureau must act fast to ensure they will return to Johnstown.

“Groups like Polka Family and the Don Wojtila Orchestra are in such high demand that we must book them for our next festival right after they finish playing to ensure they will return,” Korenoski said.

“It has taken us three years to book Alex Meixner because of his amazing popularity.”

Polka groups are familiar with each other’s work, and Meixner, who can perform in no less than seven languages, is familiar with several of the bands on the PolkaFest lineup.

Although he is scheduled for four performances over PolkaFest, people should not be surprised to see Meixner performing with several other bands during the festival.

“It would be more unusual if you didn’t see me sit in with other groups,” he said.

“I don’t get to hear some of these great bands too often that are coming to Johnstown, so this is special for me to enjoy their company.”

Calling on his Austrian heritage, the audience should not be shocked to hear Meixner yodel.

“We like to get some audience participation and we get people yodeling or cackling like chickens,” he said.

Whether people choose to dance or sit back and listen to the music, it all boils down to having a good time, even for the musicians.

“I figure while we are all in town, we might as well make a lot of noise,” he said.

Meixner’s formative musical studies were on piano and piano accordion, but he quickly branched out on drums, diatonic button accordion, bass and trumpet.

One of the unique sounds will feature Meixner on the hosaphone.

“A hosaphone is exactly what it sounds like,” he said.

“I use a trombone mouthpiece stuck into an end of a piece of garden hose with a funnel attached to get an unusual sound. When I finish playing, I remove the mouthpiece and the     hose makes a good drinking apparatus.”

The worst thing anyone could do is put a label on Meixner.

“We just want people to come out and be ready to rock,” he said.

Although Meixner will make his first appearance in Johnstown, he believes it may be fate that he finally will perform here.

Someone had done an article about Meixner and his band and used a photo. Under the caption, it identified Meixner as a native of Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

“I look at this as a homecoming of sorts since the article identified me as a native son of Johnstown,” he quipped.

It’s not unusual for Meixner to take something like a Slovenian waltz and then rock it out with some hip-hop in the middle.

Meixner has developed a musical mix that appeals to a wide cross-section of audiences.

He reads the audience and has learned through experience when to shift gears.

“We oftentimes will start off slow and meet somewhere in the middle,” he said.

Meixner’s performing career began at age 6 with his two sisters and father in an ethnic folk ensemble.

Organizers are pleased that by blending polka bands and ethnic food, visitors can sample old-world traditions in Cambria City, which is a National Register Historical District.

“It’s one big polka party – Johnstown style,” Korenoski said.

A wooden dance floor provides the perfect platform for dancing to the ongoing sounds of some extraordinary performers.

Other perks visitors will enjoy about PolkaFest are its no admission fee and free parking.

PolkaFest includes food, craft and merchandise vendors and ethnic specialties prepared and served by members of St. Mary Byzantine Catholic Church.

Seating is available, but guests are encouraged to bring lawn chairs.

Information: 800-237-8590, 536-7993 or www.visitjohnstownpa.com/polkafest.

Tom Lavis covers Features for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter.com/Tom LavisTD.

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