Amazingly, this is their best album cover
Gogol Bordello + Skampida
April 12, 2006
A few years ago, I somehow ended up getting dragged to a Ukrainian New Year’s party in Baltimore, and that night has since burned itself into my memory as a sort of personal yardstick for any party’s awesomeness. Ukrainians throw down: getting drunk off a home-brewed drink made up of grain alcohol and honey and forming crazy-acrobatic folk-dancing circles at four in the damn morning, not going home until it’s light out. Since then, I haven’t experienced anything that’s really come close.
Another prime example of Ukrainian party aptitude is Eugene Hutz’s regular DJ night at the Bulgarian restaurant Mehanata on Canal Street. I ended up going to one of these a few years ago and didn’t find out until about a year later that the DJ was Hutz, but I remember damn near everything he played: James Brown, Joan Jett, Bulgarian folk songs, ancestral dancehall reggae. I also remember how Hutz would run out from behind the turntables, grab one of the insanely hot women on hand, dance on a table or something until the song ended, and then run back into the booth and put the next record on, still the only time I’ve seen anyone manage to walk the line between DJ and showman and totally succeed at both of them.
When Hutz’s band Gogol Bordello played Warsaw last night, it wasn’t quite as delirious a throwdown as either of those two nights, but then there’s pretty much no way for a live-band performance in a large club to be anywhere near as euphoric as some unexpected random-ass out-of-the-way revelry like what happened on those two nights. Still, it was pretty well out of control. Gogol Bordello’s thing is that they take scary white-people ethnic music and rock it all up, raising the tempo until it sounds something like punk (they call it Gypsy Punk, although it’s hard to say how well it’ll go over on this summer’s Warped Tour). They’re basically the Decemberists if they’d had their formative experiences having sex and going to hardcore shows instead of cuddling and analyzing the lyrics to Out of Time. They’re not an immigrant-diaspora band on the level of, say, the Pogues simply because they don’t really fuck with weepy old-world ballads; everything is spazzed-out party-up shit. But they do that stuff marvelously, throwing themselves into so many lurches and reels that it sounded coincidental whenever the stuff came out sounding like ska or funk or country, all of which it did occasionally. I can’t imagine listening to this stuff at home on headphones, but it makes for a powerful communal experience.
More importantly, Hutz is a born performer, exactly as wildly charismatic as everyone says, and that’s something I’ve come to truly appreciate after umpteen million arms-folded indie shows. He works hard for his art: walking on the crowd’s upraised hands like Jello Biafra, trying on and losing three different hats in rapid succession, speaking between songs in a totally indecipherable heavily-accented drunken slur. He’s not much of a singer, but he doesn’t have to be. And he’s not the only showman in his band; there are also two headscarved women who come out playing percussion instruments and threatening to upstage him whenever they’re around. The best moment came during the encores, when one of them tossed her bassdrum into the crowd and then leapt out on top of it, still pounding it while the crowd held her up. (After a minute, Hutz jumped out with her, and I started to feel bad for the people under the drum.) It was hard to get mad even when a hypeman ran out and did some sub-Kiedis rapping.
Since the show was at Warsaw, I was half-expecting the crowd to be a ragtag swarm of Eastern European thug-life types (even though that’s a total stereotype and Poland isn’t the same as the Ukraine anyway), but when I arrived, I was disappointed to see how utterly nondescript the audience was other than the troubling number of white guys with dreadlocks. But they stopped being normal around the time the band took the stage, chanting “Gogol” before the lights went down (it sounded like “toga,” which was pretty funny) and then dumbing the fuck out to their entrance music. And they kept on like that for the entire two hours of the show; it’s tough to read some of my notes today because I had to write them while the damn floor was shaking.
I don’t know who books Gogol Bordello’s tours, but it’s a fair bet that this person doesn’t understand what a great band she’s working with; otherwise, they wouldn’t have ended up saddled with an opening act like Skampida, a band that sounds like a mad scientist isolated all the worst parts of Sublime and turned into their own band, trapped in some godless wasteland between watery frat-ska, pinched mall-emo, and Jason Mrazian vanilla-granola singer-songwriter bullshit. They’re immigrants like Gogol Bordello (Colombia to Florida), and both bands have a violin player, so maybe that’s the connection. But Gogol Bordello’s violinist is a crazy skinny graybeard biker-looking guy, and Skampida’s is a dreadlocked doof who does Fall Out Boy jumps during the get-fast moments. It can’t be easy finding an opener who can party anything like Gogol Bordello, but someone’s not even trying.