It all started so innocently: Musicians from Asheville’s Emmanuel Lutheran Church wanted to have an Oktoberfest, so they put together a dozen songs as entertainment. “It was such a big hit,” remembers clarinet player and vocalist Adam Bennett. Through word-of-mouth, the group found itself with four gigs for the following year.
Now celebrating the decade mark, the Mountain Top Polka Band, formed from that initial church festival, now gives more than 40 performances a year. The majority of those appearances are at Oktoberfests in September and October across North and South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia and Tennessee. Local dates include Upcountry Brewing on Sunday, Sept. 22; the Emmanuel Lutheran Church Oktoberfest on Sunday, Oct. 6; and the Rotary Club of Asheville’s Oktoberfest at Highland Brewing Co. on Thursday, Oct. 10.
The group’s official 10th anniversary show will be at the Southern Appalachian Brewery Oktoberfest on Saturday, Sept. 28, in Hendersonville.
The current Mountain Top Polka lineup includes Hans Meulenberg on tuba, saxophone and bass; Lula Meulenberg on lead accordion, Heather Meulenberg on lead vocal and accordion; Steven Taylor on drums; and Kevin Lorenz on guitar and percussion. Among the band’s instruments is an 8-foot alphorn, traditional to Bavaria, that “you just buy online,” Bennett explains, “like our outfits.” The men wear lederhosen, and the women dress in dirndl skirts sewn by Heather Meulenberg.
“We’ve had the costumes from the beginning,” Bennett says. “We wanted to get into it, just for fun. We had no idea we’d be doing it more than a year.”
But while the band’s appearance taps German custom and its shows include cowbell playing and the Schuhplattler — a folk dance with clapping and striking of soles, performed on a bench — there’s room for modern touches within the traditional kitsch. “Some people say, ‘I really don’t know about polka,’ but we make it for everyone,” Bennett says. The band adds Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” and the contemporary German anthem “Rock Mi” (think Chumbawamba meets Queen) to its set list.
“This year, we threw in ‘Africa,’ by Toto,” Bennett says. On accordion and cowbell, naturally.
In the 10 years that the band has been together, the number of Oktoberfests has increased across the South, Bennett says. And while the proliferation of craft brewing certainly hasn’t hurt the spread of the German heritage observances, Bennett doesn’t attribute the popularity directly to beer culture. Crowds come for dachshund races, stein-hoist competitions and yodeling contests as well as a number of other Bavarian-inspired games (likely made more fun with increased beer consumption).
Mountain Top Polka Band has changed, too: At first, the musicians played seated, like traditional oompah bands, “because that’s really where you start, as a musical group,” Bennett notes. “Four years in, we started standing and we started getting a whole different vibe … getting everybody involved, which is a lot of fun.”
Along with polka favorites such as “Edelweiss” and “The Lonely Goatherd,” from The Sound of Music, Lorenz (who is also the director of music at Emmanuel Lutheran Church) has been penning original songs for the collective. Mountain Top Polka band’s latest single is “Beer City Polka,” in honor of its hometown.
“When we go into other cities, we’re able to use that song to talk about Asheville and be a voice for Asheville at those festivals,” Bennett says. “We love our city … and all the great things happening here.”
The group is currently at work on creating a polka opera. Using love songs and upbeat numbers, the project aims to lead listeners through the history of polka, from its inception to today. “We’ll probably be performing it locally soon,” Bennett says.
But first, there’s Oktoberfest season to get through and, since polka is a niche in the South, Mountain Top Polka has plenty of work — the band receives two or three requests to play per day, and usually fully books its September and October calendar by January.
Because the musicians are avid researchers of their genre, they’d love to travel to Germany for Oktoberfest one year, Bennett says. The only problem (and it’s a good one to have) is that they’re just too busy playing polka at home.
WHAT: Mountain Top Polka Band 10th anniversary show, mountaintoppolka.com
WHERE: Southern Appalachian Brewery Oktoberfest, 822 Locust St., Hendersonville
WHEN: Saturday, Sept. 28, 1-6 p.m., $8/free for kids younger than 16