Gogol Bordello never disappoint live, they are absolutely a band to see on a large stage because their theatrics never cease to ravish the crowds. I had not seen them for a while, and it’s crazy to realize that frontman Eugene Hütz is now approaching 50. He still has twice the energy of someone half his age and, to me, he will always represent the untamed brashness of youth.
Nothing of what I witnessed during Gogol Bordello’s performance at the Wiltern Theater on Thursday night could contradict this statement. The show was breathless and restless, and Hütz rarely stayed still for more than a few seconds: he was as fast as lightning and controlled the crowd at his fingertips thanks to his spectacular theatrics. But the entire band is a pleasure to see live because of their in-perpetual-movement stage ballet, their fierce energy, and exhausting stamina. They played a 2-hour show without taking a pause except for a minute or 2 before the encore. How do they do that?
Nu Folk Rebel Alliance, a Gogol Bordello offshoot (it is the project of Pedro Erazo, aka ‘Pdrito,’ a member of Gogol Bordello, and Leo Minimum Tek) opened the night with a more low-key approach. However, they carried the same passion with injections of folk in their music and they also covered the Clash!
Gogol Bordello have always approached their music as a spectacle with a multi-ethnic group injecting many cultures and every style of music that fits in the busy mix. They have always been the ultimate mixing pot. They also self-proclaimed themselves ‘gypsy punks,’ especially after the release of their 2005 Steve-Albini-produced album ‘Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike.’ If gypsy is certainly considered a pejorative term – more than ever these days – they have appropriated the term and have never looked back.
Roma music and Eastern European folk are the core of their sound, but they have drawn their music from countless origins and folklores: Eugene Hütz was born in Ukraine, migrated to the US, but he has lived in New York City and Sao Paolo, Brazil. He has said in interviews that he has learned English from his ‘uncles’ (Johnny Cash, Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, and Shane MacGowan), and over the years, the band has added multilayers to their punk tempos via the Balkans. The result is delivered like a true rock show, drenched in sweat and movement, but this could not be more buoyant and colorful. It’s world music, a multi-language amalgams of sounds of the world, incorporating reggae-ish beats, dub, and Brazilian carnival.
On Friday night, Gogol Bordello were back to its usual effervescent stage circus, and I managed to stay just below Eugene’s mic the entire time, to my great surprise. I rarely turned around to watch what was happening behind my back, and if people were pushing and jumping – I kneeled a few times to let the security guards catch crowd surfers – it was not too bad. Eugene was as flamboyant as I remember, wearing colorful outfits with fringed shirts and pineapple-theme pants, sipping a bottle at different moments of the show, and soaking the front rows by throwing some red wine (was it really wine?) over us. As soon as they started the first songs ‘Sacred Darling,’ ‘Passport’ and ‘Not a Crime,’ there was full participation of the crowd with handclaps, foot-tapping, and screamed singalongs.
However, there is also substance in their over-the-top theatrics as there’s more to Gogol Bordello than the raucous punk delivery: they have always been fearless defenders of immigrants – they had included ‘Immigrant punk’ and ‘Immigraniada’ in the setlist – and their anarchic attitude and abundance or ‘rebellious’ and ‘revolution’ in the lyrics could make them the Clash’s heirs.
To the crowd’s great pleasure (and mine), they performed plenty of their oldies, like the fantastic ‘Wonderlust King’ and its insatiable curiosity for the world, or ‘Alcohol’ – that gave them the opportunity to catch their breath – ‘Through the Roof ‘n’ Underground,’ ‘Ultimate’ whose lyrics could sum up Gogol Bordello in a nutshell: ‘There was never any good old days/They are today, they are tomorrow/It’s a stupid thing we say/Cursing tomorrow with sorrow.’ Of course, ‘Start Wearing Purple,’ the ultimate vino song, prompted an inevitable crowd sing-along: their political attitude comes with a penchant for everything alcohol. Curiously they only played one song (‘Saboteur Blues’) of their latest album ‘Seekers and Finders,’ but people were obviously there to hear the hits and the fan favorites from their extensive back catalog.
As usual, it would be difficult to choose a highlight of the show as each song was delivered with the same bravado and fervor shared by the entire room. ‘Pala Tute’ was also a riot, followed by ‘Sally’ and its nomadic rambling: ‘I ended up being a walking United Nation/And I survived even fucking radiation.’
If Eugene Hütz is the ultimate frontman, each member of the band shared the spotlight evenly, and each one of them came to the edge of the stage many times, from violin maestro Sergey Ryabtsev to guitarist Boris Pelekh, bassist Thomas Gobena and percussionists/vocalists Pedro Erazo and Ashley Tobias. The band has evolved over the years, some have stayed, some have left and there are new faces, but I noticed the absence of an accordion player who added some Balkans flair. Eugene was constantly approaching the crowd, and if he didn’t do his favorite stunt – riding a large drum carried by the crowd as I have seen him do before – I understand that we are still in pandemic times.
The encore was a long one, just like the show, with more devilish rhythms (‘I Would Never Wanna Be Young Again’) and, appropriately, their last song was ‘Understructable,’ chanted by the crowd for a grand finale. ‘All is hardcore when made with love/Love is a voice of a savage soul/This savage love is undestructable,’ says the song. At this point, everyone should have been impressed by their resilience and stamina if not by their ease to bring intense joy on all these faces.
‘It has been a strange, anchoring pleasure’
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something he learned from his legendary uncle
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play around with the different stems