AC, Phil and I went to see Man Man and Gogol Bordello play at Ram’s Head in Baltimore on Thursday. AC and I had just seen Man Man back in May when they played a sold out show on the main stage of the Black Cat downtown. It looked as though just about everyone had come to see them, though they were only the opening act. Cursive was the headliner.
It was a weird show. Security was out of character, prowling through the crowd with flashlights, sniffing out the smugglers of cheap, outside liquor. There was a snitch. A blond woman knelt down in the middle of the crowd near the stage where we stood and picked up a can of what looked like energy drink. “Who’s is this?!” she ordered us to fess up, and then said to the bouncer, “help me search these kid’s pockets.” But, it just took a quick sniff of what must be rancid smelling beer to find the culprit. He and his gang were quickly removed.
The first opening act wasn’t a band at all, but an emaciated comedian who looked like a recovering junkie. He told “art jokes” which, announced as humor that only a few people would get, turned out to be mostly prop humor about girl parts and Beanie Babies.
Then there was Man Man…
They come from Philly. They came to the stage dressed like former tennis pros and track athletes, wearing white shirts and short white shorts. Like they stepped off of an old Reel Big Fish album cover. They applied zinc to their faces like war paint. And their instruments, an array of percussion, keyboards, brass, and mallets bore novelty shop plastic florescent horns and rubber snakes. They started on their best track — Top Drawer — and the bouncing, cacophonous minor piano chords were chased by mustached lead singer Honus Honus (aka, Ryan Kattner’s) throaty lyrics. “You need a haircut. You need a shoeshine…” I looked to AC wide eyed and shouted,”This is it!” and the sound overtook us as we fell into the energy of the crowd.
It speaks to the Man Man philosophy: acknowledge your crowd. It doesn’t mean you have to stand at the mike and interject between songs some funny quip while you tune up as bands tend to do, often awkwardly. Man Man showed their unselfconscious goofiness from the start, and everyone of the band members kept up that energy throughout.
AC and I had been to Rams Head earlier this year before heading back on Thursday for Man Man and Gogol Bordello. It was a Modest Mouse show and sadly, it was perhaps the most apathetic performance I’d ever witnessed. An egregious sin to the enthusiastic show-goer. But, when Man Man finished their set when we first saw them a few weeks ago at Black Cat, I was instantly settled on the opinion that this is the Best Live Band Ever, a title previously reserved for the Tokyo-based Polysics, spastic new wavers who riled a crowded, sold out backstage show in the same venue to a furious sweat back in the winter. AC said he’d have to compare them to Gogol Bordello (GB) to be sure. And as luck would have it, Man Man and GB started touring together at the end of May.
The Rams Head in Baltimore is an alternative to the 9:30 Club in DC. They’re both split level venues with balcony viewing (Rams Head has a third level reserved as a VIP section) and the food and drinks are pricey (and Rams Head has bathroom attendants). But Rams Head is a nice safety net to the 9:30 Club, which sells out its big ticket headliners pretty quickly, even when they’re booked for two night shows. Probably for lack of convenient transportation (or public transportation), Rams Head hardly ever sells out. Of course, you have to put up with DC’s greatest flaw to get there: traffic jams.
The crowd at the Man Man shows are a lot more easy-going than I remember at most other shows. A little older (Modest Mouse attracted plenty of pimply teenagers). More sociable. More laid-back. A few of the younger Gogol fans had come to the show with their various homages – guys with carefully groomed mustaches (lead singer Eugene Hutz, among others, made it respectable), bright red satin shorts, and some guys wore old track suits popular in the early 90s. Standing at the bar, doing shots with AC, I looked around blissfully at my fellow show attendees. The bohemians prevail here as they did at shows once before, though not in an entirely authentic sense this time around, but that’s another story.
Man Man was the only opening performer this time. They arrived on stage dressed in all white again, their instruments arranged just as they had been at the last show – the keyboardist and drummer (Chris Powell) set up in front, facing each other while sitting in profile to us, while another keyboardist, flanked by the two mallet players on either side stood behind them. Being in a larger venue blessed them with a fuller sound and it was perfect. AC and I raced away from the bar, but couldn’t cut through the crowd as they tightly held to their spot. So we wound up in the stair well at center stage with a better view and watched the set.
Now in a bigger venue, on a bigger stage, their sound was wonderfully richer. They opened with something off of the Six Demon Bag album (referencing Big Trouble in Little China here!). In the middle of the set, Kattner climbed on top of the stacked amps, just near the balcony and I looked around to see if any security guards were going to motion for him to get down. (It would’ve been a nasty fall). He was wearing his trademark turquoise sequined shirt that looked like leftovers from a Leslie Hall Bedazzler session, having quickly gone backstage to retrieve it during one of the songs. Later, he tossed out a bag of bright pink feathers into the audience, who happily grabbed at them. Then, he returned to join the band. I especially like how water manages to fly about at the rap of the keyboard or whip of a drum stick. At first, I just thought this was from enormous puddles of sweat that had accumulated on the instruments during the set (trust me, they keep busy during the show), until I saw the audience mimicking the same with their water and beer bottles.
Man Man’s eclectic style has been described as Vaudeville. Sure, it’s fitting for their recorded material, but their live material sounds more heavily influenced by blues and big band and their loose goofiness eventually becomes so organic that it could will the crowd to speak in tongues. “When are these guys finally going to headline a show?” I shouted to AC as the set concluded and we shoved our way back to the bar. But among the competition, Gogol Bordello still had yet to show what they could do.
People know Gogol Bordello. “Have you seen Everything is Illuminated or Wristcutters: A Love Story?” the common narrative begins. Their style is what they call Gypsy Punk. Gypsy, because it’s New York-based members being Russian and Ukrainian immigrants (Eugene Hutz was actually born Evgeny Aleksandrovitch Nikolaev Simonov). My favorite is Sergey Ryabstev, the band’s 50 year old fiddler who looks like he works at an army surplus shop. It’s not “punk” in the traditional sense of grinding guitars and speed beats. Gogol Bordello, like Man Man, have perfected a fusion of old and new – these songs amping up old Europe folk and blending it with dub, funk, and yes, neo-punk. The band stands at nine members, and they incorporate everything from accordions to fiddles, traditional guitar-bass-and-drums, washboards, triangles, acoustic guitar, synths, bongos, and more. (The two females of the bands, Elizabeth Sun and Pam Racine, played the washboards and triangles). They’ve perfected a heritage genre the way Irish bands like Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphy’s have paid their own thanks.
Gogol Bordello certainly rivals Man Man in energy, too. But where Man Man seems to enjoy even the most stripped down performance (their style is conducive to just that), GB is a more sophisticated production – even having a giant banner with the GB logo hanging overhead. The pre-show was a husky young guy spinning beats while the crowd starting filling in all the best places. We went up stairs and back down in search of good standing room, and the security guards wouldn’t permit us to stand on the stairs anymore, flashing lights in our direction from across the room. The period between sets gets to be ridiculous at Rams Head shows, and eventually a restless crowds starts hooting and clapping to get things going. Eventually, Eugene ran out with his acoustic guitar strapped on (dressed in Christian Bland’s trademark style), and rips into a few chords before the rest of the band follows suit and joins him on stage. Keeping it lively means occasional surprise, so the two girls who played washboard and triangle didn’t come out until a few songs later. I wasn’t familiar with any of the songs, although I was hoping they would play “Not a Crime” before we had to leave (this being the reason I only had 3 hours of sleep before making the drive back to Florida for the weekend).
AC once said that concerts are a different way for people to experience music, something that someone enjoys the way they might if watching pro sports or a movie. Gogol Bordello puts on a tremendously fun show because the band keeps it lively. It had especially been a long time since I’d seen stage divers (though I’m rarely ever in a venue large enough to accomodate them), and more than a handful of wide-eyed kids couldn’t care less that they were losing shoes and jackets being carried over the crowd. But in the end, I asked AC what his verdict was – who reigns the victor of live performances now that we’ve had opportunity to compare. Man Man. Though it’s lo-fi sillyness (actually that’s too discrediting), they’ve still managed to hook into this musical equation of organic catharsis.
Fellows, now is the time to start headlining!