In a packed basement on a bitterly cold night, the staff are fretting and the diners are sizing up their pizzas. Seven on stage is a squeeze, with barely room for trombonist Emmanul Perraz to extend his slide, when Darko Rundek slips on with something of Klaus Kinski about him, and from the haunted look in his eyes, he may very well have just hauled an opera house over a mountain. For a man whose band can fill the largest venue in Belgrade, the mountain here is the lure of Buffalo Margherita distracting a restaurant crowd apparently more interested in hot pizza than the chill sounds of Rundek’s beautifully evocative, dissolute melodies. There’s a hesitant start to the show, the audience chewing, Darko pre-occupied and offering a slightly aimless, thrown-away song about friends getting stuck in Amsterdam. Mumbled, incomprehensible English between songs does little to focus proceedings. The promised visuals haven’t materialized and the band is loose to the point of messiness. It’s not looking good.
Then twenty minutes in, the spirit of Haustor - Rundek’s rock outfit from the eighties - emerges, a yell splits the stage, “1,2,3,4!” and the Orkestar launch into a Ramones-tempo Balkan jazz folk-jam. Like an actor removing a mask, the audience, as one, reveal themselves to be expatriate Croatians, and at this first sighting of a folk melody, practically bang their Pepperoni Piccantes together. Things are starting to happen. Perhaps it is Max Reinhardt’s additions to Vedran Peternel’s layers of electronica that energize the start of the second half. Atmospherics generate atmosphere and bassist Bruno Arnel sets a funky groove before Darko enters into the mournful “Ruke”, title track from his latest release. “These are hands,” he sings, “let me play for you”. Now the room has become the cabaret of broken promises and lost dreams that is so elegantly evoked on that album. Stage right, Isobel on violin is a witching presence. Described by the record company as a ‘transsexual samurai’ she plays her violin with gipsy verve, classical precision and a terrifying will to pulp every last drop of sound from its punished fingerboard, at times holding it like a guitar for pizzicato effect and then thrashing it à la Pete Townsend. A couple of the songs from the eighties, and the oh-oh-oh chorus of “Makedo” is triumphant. Deep down this crowd never needed converting, but by the time of the encore, “Apokalipso”, the evening is won.