At festive affairs, bands learn to expect the unexpected

When Julie Egger, manager of the Red Hot Chachkas klezmer band, packs up her violin and heads to a gig, she expects the unexpected.

Surprises, say members of local Jewish bands, often add a little zip to weddings, bar mitzvahs and other celebrations. And, if nothing else, they make for good stories afterwards.

Take, for instance, the time Egger's band was hired to play at an outdoor wedding in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. "We just assumed it was going to be a Jewish wedding," she said. "Why else would people hire a klezmer band?"

Apparently, for other reasons.

When the six-member group showed up at the recent celebration, the musicians quickly realized that neither the bride nor groom was Jewish. The couple practiced Buddhism. Two robed monks were in attendance.

It turned out that the newlyweds simply liked klezmer music and wanted it performed as part of their outdoor event.

While the 70 guests were eating, Egger's group started playing. Then, she decided it was time for some dancing.

Egger told the guests: "You guys hired a Jewish band, you're going to have a Jewish wedding." In no time, she got people dancing around a tent brought in for the party. Though the monks didn't join in, they snapped a lot of pictures.

"People were having a blast," said Egger, who lives in the Marin community of Lagunitas. "We had a great time. I use that anecdote when people are trying to hire us because we can get anyone dancing."

For Michael Gill, leader of the Shtetlblasters, the motto is: "Keep smiling and keep playing."

Sometimes, that's a challenge.

Two years ago, his seven-piece band was performing at a big wedding in the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley. "We were in the middle of doing a very energetic hora set when our sound system blew," he said. "Suddenly, we lost the P.A. system and the electric instruments."

Not to worry.

The band's drummer kept on banging the beat. Other musicians grabbed whatever percussion instrument they could find, jumped to the dance floor and kept the rhythm going — to the delight of the guests still snaking around the room. "You just go with it," said Gill, whose band plays an eclectic mix of Jewish music, jazz and Motown.

"As a musician, you need to be able to jump in and cover whatever the situation is," he added. A resident of Richmond, Gill plays keyboard and woodwinds for the 8-year-old group and also is a member of Adama, a traditional Jewish band.

Music, he said, has a great capacity for being able to "take the worst disasters and make it seem like it was meant that way."

But not always.

Once, Achi Ben-Shalom, leader of Adama and a member of Shtetlblasters, was in the middle of a song at a Marin wedding when a bee landed on his hand and stung him.

"I was in pain but I was being a hero," recalled Ben-Shalom, who let out a brief yelp but kept on singing. "The show must go on."

At another wedding, Ben-Shalom recalled watching the bride and groom parade into the Brazilian Room at Tilden Park. During the procession, "in marches a chicken," pecking at something on the floor. "Everyone's attention is totally going to the chicken. That's all people could talk about."

Surprises can be bittersweet. Gerry Tenney, leader of Oakland-based California Klezmer, suddenly had to deal with the unexpected at a nursing home, where his group was performing at a birthday party.

While she was dancing, an elderly woman suffered a heart attack, fell to the floor and died. "We were told that the last thing she said was, 'Tell the band not to stop playing.' It was sort of like going the way she would have liked to.

"We stopped for about an hour or so. The ambulance came and took her away and they asked us to keep playing," recalls Tenney, who plays mandolin and guitar, and sings Yiddish songs. "It was kind of something you don't forget."