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John Lamb, Published October 31 2012

No bones about it: David Wax Museum brings music to the people

FARGO – Suz Slezak is used to getting odd looks and lots of questions as she passes through customs.

Her response - impromptu concert.

Slezak plays the fiddle in the Mexo-Americana folk band David Wax Museum, but her other instrument gets a lot more attention. On some numbers she adds percussion on the quijada – a donkey’s jawbone.

“Well you know you’re not supposed to bring animal products between countries, but we’ve always been able to play our way out of it by playing a song and showing it’s an instrument,” Slezak says. “They let it slide. Just playing a tune always works.”

Slezak brings the quijada and the rest of David Wax Museum to The Aquarium on Tuesday.

Slezak and singer/guitarist David Wax met in the Boston folk scene five years ago, shortly after Wax spent a year studying traditional folk music in Mexico.

Raised in Virginia on bluegrass and old-time music, Slezak sees similarities between Americana and traditional Mexican Son music.

“That music is played in communities and lots of people join in and they’re big group parties,” Slezak explains. “In some ways that has similarities to the old-time music I grew up playing, the communal activity and there’s often dancing and people can join in.”

The styles got even closer recently during a two-week European tour with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. The trio plays traditional African-American music from the Carolinas, using, among other instruments, animal rib bones.

“We would have jokes about farm animal skeletons and get each other on stage to have as many bones on stage at one time as we could,” Slezak says.

David Wax Museum found its sound quickly and just three years after forming won a contest to appear at the Newport Folk Festival in 2010 – shortly after making their regional debut opening for the Old 97s at The Venue.

The group, Slezak, Wax and percussionist/guitarist Greg Glassman made such an impression they were dubbed “the breakout act” of the festival by Paste Magazine and invited back to play the main stage the next year.

“Newport Folk Festival will always stand out for us. It was kind of our entrance onto the national stage,” Slezak says, though she adds that Winnipeg Folk Festival is one of her favorites.

The festival gigs kept following and so did the praise, with Time magazine listing them as one of the highlights of the 2011 South-by-Southwest Festival and the Huffington Post tabbing them “the best band you might not know.”

The group released its latest, “Knock Knock Get up,” in September with a Tiny Desk concert on NPR, and a featured appear on The World Café. The Huffington Post proclaimed it “louder, richer, fuller… more mature” than its previous recordings.

As the group’s popularity grows with their sound (they’ve added percussionist Philip Mayer and Glassman has switched to bass) and they find themselves playing larger rooms, they still find ways to keep the sound and performance intimate. Slezak says they use a condenser microphone, like old time bluegrass artists, so they can all gather around and lean in to take turns playing leads or sing.

Even when technology may fail, as it did this past summer when they played in the North Dakota Museum of Art in Grand Forks, Slezak says the group has other ways to bring music to the people.

“We love getting off the stage and walking around the crowd, using the space in creative ways to keep that sense of closeness with the audience,” she says.

Despite their take on Mexican folk music, they don’t have special plans for a Day of the Dead show today when they play Chicago. They will be observant next Tuesday when they play Fargo on election night, scheduled to take the stage at 11.

“I feel like everyone will be biting their nails during our show. Hopefully we can take breaks and get updates,” she says, adding that the group already voted. “It seems like (some races are) so close we might have to wait into the wee hours of the night so our show will be over by then.”

If you go

What: David Wax Museum with Shane Maland and Little Winter

When: 10 p.m. Tuesday; doors open at 9

Where: The Aquarium, 226 Broadway, Fargo

Info: Tickets are $8 for this ID-only show, available at www.ticketweb.com and Orange Records. (701) 235-5913

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533