Raise your hand if you’ve never heard of Gogol Bordello … or if you have heard of them, raise your beer so you don’t spill it as you crowd-surf.
The eight-member gypsy punk outfit is led by Eugene Hutz, a Ukrainian by birth with Romani heritage on his German mother’s side whose family moved after Chernobyl and eventually relocated to Vermont; he now lives in Brazil. Hutz is skinny and beaky, with a silver canine tooth, wild hair and a pirate’s mustache. He sings with a pronounced accent that serves his material well and plays a rugged acoustic guitar with rambunctious grace.
The rest of the line-up is just as internationally far-flung, with musicians from Belarus, Scotland by way of China, Russia, Ethiopia, Ecuador and Los Angeles. The name is an homage to Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol … and, well, a brothel. The lyrics are a mix of English, Romani, Spanish and for all I know, Esperanto. Their songs jump from pogo-worthy punk to ska to straight-up rock, along with several ballads that sound like what you’d hear at the end of a Russian wedding reception right before the last of the drunken guests are kicked out of the hall.
My partner is quite the fan of Gogol Bordello, starting with their 2010 album Trans-Continental Hustle. (I just found out that was produced by Rick Rubin, whose exquisite taste knows no musical boundaries.) She took our older daughter to see them at the Fillmore a couple of years ago and sat in the balcony as our daughter joined the crush of fans standing near the stage. After more than 90 minutes of mosh pit churn with the “gypsters” she was dehydrated and half-deaf: in other words, she’d had a great time.
When she learned my partner had gotten tickets for me and our younger daughter to see the band in Royal Oak, she had just one piece of advice: “Wear shoes you don’t care about.”
We arrived early enough to stake a claim standing one level above the main floor behind a railing so we could see everything without getting trampled. Our neighbors to the left were a pony-tailed guy and his girlfriend with an ice-blue pixie cut and flawless red lipstick (who, upon learning my daughter was 12, told her, “You’re gonna go far, honey”). On the right was Bald Tattooed Handlebar Mustache Guy, who brought half his family with him since he’d had so much fun at the Fillmore show. Who needs an opening act when you’ve got an audience like this?
(There was an opening act: Man Man, which brought funk and surrealism together in a way that might have made Frank Zappa proud … although someone will have to explain to me what was up with the guy in the neon green boiler suit and melted piggy face mask who wandered on stage during a couple of their numbers.)
Gogol Bordello puts on an amazing concert, even if you’re like me and don’t know the words to their songs (and have no desire to slam dance). Grinning the entire time, we were swept away by their energy and showmanship – although they aren’t as zany as in their earlier days:
Yet this show was not shtick or the “bonanzatronic madness” Hutz described in Mother Jones a few years back. It’s a combination of tribal tradition and new music, partying and protest: the world seen through immigrants’ eyes. As they sing in “Immigraniada,”
It’s a book of true stories
True stories that can’t be denied
It’s more than true, it actually happened
We comin’ rougher every time
See you on the flip side at the show I’ve been waiting for all summer: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at DTE Energy Music Theater August 23!
P.S. Looking for a rock and roll romance? Love and Other B-Sides is available in paperback and e-book editions now on Amazon.