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Janet Klein puts an energetic new twist on old tunes

Nostalgia can be a tricky business. Sure, there is joy to be found in re-living pleasant memories, but if you choose to stay in the past you run the risk of becoming a novelty.

Janet Klein, who appears tomorrow at Claremont’s Folk Music Center, has solved this conundrum. Ms. Klein, with her band the Parlor Boys, brings a charming authenticity to the music of the early part of the 20th Century and as a result, it feels fresh, never hokey or musty.

The group’s live show is a joyous celebration of this underappreciated era in American music. Top-notch musicianship coupled with Ms. Klein’s straightforward vocal style and infectious charisma—bereft of sentimentality or, worse yet, ironic hipster co-opt—makes this trip through the past a guiltless ride.

“I don’t call it nostalgia,” Ms. Klein said. “Nostalgia is remembering something fondly from your own past. The term nostalgia is kind of trite. When classical musicians play Mozart, they’re not playing it because they’re nostalgic; they’re playing it because it’s some of the greatest music ever written. And that’s how I feel about this music. I just can’t believe that you can’t hear this type of music all over the place.”

The band features the instrumentation of the age: ukulele, guitar, accordion, piano, kazoo, percussion and double bass, among others. Its repertoire is drawn from obscure nuggets from the 1910s to the late 1930s as well as a few of their own period-accurate compositions penned by bandleader, author, historian and Parlor Boy Ian Whitcomb.

The effervescent 50-something Ms. Klein has been fronting the band since 1996. The group has released eight records, the latest being 2016’s “It’s the Girl!”

She’s found that audiences are responsive and early 20th century American culture is valued, whether she’s performing in LA, Japan, Australia or Ireland. And while the style is from a long-gone era, the music has broad appeal.

“I get everybody from little kids who somehow encounter it—and seem to know how to dance the Charleston—on up to the older people that remember this music the first time around, and everybody in between.”

Along with music, Ms. Klein has recently been picking up work as a voiceover artist. She voiced Miss Langtree on the critically acclaimed Cartoon Network miniseries Over the Garden Wall, which won an Emmy for outstanding animated program in 2015. She’s also worked on the network’s offbeat hit, Adventure Time.

“Since then I’ve had kind of a third following with teenagers and 20-somethings who say they heard me first on the cartoon and looked me up. I get letters all the time now from that sector.”

Ms. Klein’s artist’s journey began with her isolation as a youngster growing up in San Bernardino in the 1970s. Instead of dreaming of having that perfectly feathered Farrah Fawcett hairdo, she took her inspiration from what was around her.

“I came to this not through music, and definitely not something like musical theater or anything like that,” she explained. “I came to it all because I didn’t like much in contemporary culture, and I felt like an alien!” She enjoyed hanging out with the older members of her family. “I liked their things. I liked their objects in their houses. I liked the way people had beautiful, elegant photographs of themselves. I liked the old china. I liked the clothing. I liked the houses that they lived in.”

Ms. Klein started out writing poetry after moving to Los Angeles for college in the late 1980s. She began incorporating the ukulele into her readings in the mid-1990s, and before too long she was booking music shows exclusively. From the start, her direction was clear.

“It doesn’t put on airs,” Ms. Klein said of the musical period she favors. “It doesn’t have an attitude thing about it. And it doesn’t whine. It does something else, and it’s life-affirming for the things that count.”

Ms. Klein has a vast palette from which to draw: early jazz, late ragtime, the Hawaiian craze, ballads, blues and novelty tunes.

“It’s the benefit of hindsight,” she said. “I can do upscale city music, and rural music, and French and Hawaiian, I can do whatever I want!”

She began her journey collecting old sheet music. Her obsession morphed into records and other items from the era. The old LPs, mostly 78s, bring her a particular joy.

“It’s an object,” she explained. “It’s your little piece of evidence. When you have an object in your hands you turn it over, and you read the details, you’re looking at the label of the record, and it tells you more about it. It gives you more texture to the whole experience, you know? Maybe there are handwritten notes on the sleeve, or who knows. There’s just something kind of rich about it.”

Finding material hasn’t been a problem. The band has released about 150 tunes, and Ms. Klein is forever on the prowl for new and interesting songs to free from obscurity. She sees herself as a proud musical archeologist and a champion of the artists and songwriters from a somewhat unheralded age.

“Most of [the era’s artists] are not remembered,” she said. “But it happened. It doesn’t mean they weren’t great and big stuff in their day. I find so many artists like that. Some of them are in movies. These people were huge in their day.”

The artist as historian/crusader is a role that Ms. Klein accepts willingly. “That’s part of my soapbox with this music, too. People think, ‘Oh, yeah, 1920s music, I know that stuff. It’s kind of corny.’ And, I don’t think so.”

Asked about the relevance of the era’s music in today’s turbulent world, Ms. Klein made a good case. “The music is a product of immigrants in this country, coming from all over the place. I think their parents probably wanted them to become classical musicians and they came here and they mix it up. So a lot of these musicians on the East Coast, coming from Europe and being classically trained, they were really great. And there were a zillion bands and venues all over the United States.

“There’s a lot to be found in this era of music. It tells you about what America looked like in those days.”

And with Janet Klein and the Parlor Boys one has a vibrant, charming musical tour guide through the back pages of the some of the lesser-known chapters of the American songbook.

“But you know,” she said, “if you leave evidence, somebody might find it and get some joy out of it.”

Janet Klein and Her Parlor Boys appear tomorrow, Saturday, February 11 at 7:30 p.m. at the Folk Music Center, 220 Yale Ave. Tickets are $20. For information, visit folkmusiccenter.com or call (909) 624-2928. More info on Janet Klein is at janetklein.com.

—Mick Rhodes

mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

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