There’s an old Jackie Mason joke where, when talking about the reception of his material, he claims that ‘gentiles love it’ but when Jews hear it, their response doesn’t stretch beyond ‘echh… too Jewish’. I had this ringing in my ears as I walked with a bit of trepidation into the strangely lit Mood Nightclub, where the huge open space is married with bizarre, multicoloured disco lighting. Not the most obvious setting for Daniel Cainer’s keyboard-led ballads about his childhood, ideas of journeying, and, yes, lots about Jews.
For the first half of the show, Cainer’s ballads employ a lot of Yiddishisms, but one word he misses out characterises a large portion – schmaltz. Significant sections of the earlier songs – one about the wandering nature of the Jewish people, another dedicated to his grandparents’ move to Israel, and the story of two turn of the century tailors, employ slightly laboured melodies and have a somewhat evangelical quality to them. There’s even a reference to past generations being bonded by ‘everlasting light’ – no bad thing, but one that, tied with his lounge-ballad style, makes the lyrics verge on the clumsy and mawkish.
Despite this, by the second half of the show Cainer’s use of less weighty topics in his songs see him cutting loose, showing the vigour of his playing, the skill of his comic wordplay, and more evidence of the charisma behind his performances. Songs about a Rabbi busted for excessive partying and a painstaking description of his parents’ divorce show a great deal of exuberant wit and utilising Jewish tropes for the purpose of the songs rather than vice versa – allowing him to successfully rally the audience in a robust series of ‘oy vas mir’s. When Cainer lays off on the cheese, (not mixed with meat, of course), the results are tightly crafted songs emerging from a rich comic tradition.