Maybe it was my notes. They are a garbled mess. I have them laid out in front of me; eleven pages in all—ten really, as one of them is blank except for the scrawls of a dying pen. They are full of scribbles and shorthand, acronyms and annotations so small I couldn’t read them with the help of Hubble. Perhaps I should have expected this. It was New Year’s Eve after all; in Philadelphia—a city where 150,000 of its inhabitants celebrate the changing of the calendar year by waking up at six in the morning, donning dresses, and marching to City Hall with beers in hand before drinking the day away. They call themselves Mummers, and some were in attendance at this show, preparing for the following day’s merriment. But it wasn’t their fault… it was my own.
Maybe I wasn’t psychically prepared. Because really, how the hell did I expect to take notes at a Gogol Bordello show knowing fine well that these gypsy-punk pirates could induce such wild abandon? Spirits were high. So were elbows. As were alcohol levels. Which is why this might be fiction, because even when my notes fail me, my memory usually steps in, yet here, it’s hazy. It was New Year’s Eve after all… But back to the elbows: They weren’t aggressive, they were merely used as balancing poles as the crowd hopped from one foot to another. Theses nudges and knocks weren’t malicious but were instead the innocuous interference of people having a good time.
Gogol Bordello + West Philadelphia Orchestra
31 Dec 2008: Electric Factory Philadelphia, PA
Maybe I am too westernized to let go. On “American Wedding”, the penultimate track from Gogol Bordello’s 2007 album, Super Taranata!, atop of an accordion-led stomp, lead singer Eugene Hutz wonders: “Have you ever been to American wedding? / Where is the vodka, where’s marinated herring? / Where is the supply that gonna last three days? / Where is the band that like Fanfare. Gonna keep it goin’ 24 hours.” It’s a damning indictment of the way Americans celebrate. And it’s true… kind of. Glancing around I see arms raised and legs moving. It’s wild and chaotic and ringleader Hutz is the one everyone obeys. I feel slightly vacant; aware of my surroundings, but not entirely engulfed by them. Sure, there are times when I suddenly find myself moving, but I can’t figure out whether it’s an involuntary action or the result of peer pressure. I wonder what’s wrong with me; it’s New Year’s Eve and one of the world’s most revered live acts is on stage, yet I feel slightly self-conscious and self-aware. I am unable to let go and enjoy the music, which is a blend of Eastern European party anthems played with a punk spirit, similar to what The Pogues did to traditional Irish music.
Maybe it was the accent. The show started as Hutz prowled onstage like a lone wolf, strumming an acoustic guitar with seemingly every ounce of strength he had. (During the course of the show, this guitar would become an extra appendage, as much a part of Hutz’ appearance as his wily moustache.) Once at the mic, he said, somewhat menacingly: “Letz doo this fooking thing” in his strong Ukrainian accent. Sure, he sounds and looks authentic and, from all the research I’ve done, Hutz and the rest of the band is a rag tag combination of cross-continental musicians, yet there is also a nagging feeling that I am being duped, that this isn’t authentic at all, and that Hutz could probably be heard practicing his foreign accent backstage before hand. There’s the band’s “hype man” and the identical girls playing washboards. There’s the “stirring” finale where the whole band runs from one side of the stage to the other as if on a storm-struck ship. There’s the old man playing violin, and then there’s Hutz, pointing his acoustic guitar at us like a machine gun. At first this showmanship is fun and frenetic, yet it also feels carefully calculated, slightly rote and rehearsed. There’s a certain lack of spontaneity and at times the moves seem forced… like the accent.
Maybe it was the repetitiveness. If there’s any real failing in Gogol’s party-baiting sound, it’s the inherent similarity that starts to slip in as the set moves on. It’s not that the songs all sound the same, per se, it’s just that, like punk, there’s a similar base from which each song is built – driving chords and catchy phrasing. Then again, everyone is seemingly here for exactly this: Choruses, singing along, banging one foot on the floor and swinging a drink in one hand, in essence a primal feeling of togetherness and a common cause, and if that’s what everyone is here for, then Gogol Bordello deliver due, mainly, to their repetitiveness.
Maybe it was the balloons. Hung high in the rafters, like a spy ready to swoop in and steal some secret code, motionless, waiting for their cue, they indicated something greater at hand. This was New Year’s Eve after all… They indicated that this was not an ordinary show, yet it felt as though Gogol Bordello pulled out the same stops they’d tug out on any tour date. Sure, there was a free Balkan buffet, but this was still being set up as we hightailed it out of the venue at night’s end. And yes, it was wild and chaotic and at midnight, as the balloons dropped, and the band burst into “Start Wearing Purple”, members of the Space 1026 art collective’s Mummer’s group appeared in the crowd in resplendent costumes, yet I still expected something more.
Maybe it was the West Philadelphia Orchestra. Their own peculiar brand of music—a kind of rag tag High School marching band version of Balkan bands—made them a perfect support act for Gogol Bordello. As the name suggests, the band is based in West Philadelphia and is, for all intents and purposes, an orchestra. Twelve members strong, they include brass and strings, percussion (sitting and standing drummers) and stand-up bass, and play Balkan music of a more traditional nature—the kind you’d expect to hear at daylong weddings in Romanian villages. I’ve seen them play smaller, more intimate spaces, spaces that allow them to immerse themselves in the crowd, step off the stage and provide the audience a real, true surround sound, so I was a little worried how their sound would fare in the cavernous Electric Factory. Fortunately, it fared well. Whereas Gogol Bordello adds punk overtones to their own Eastern European genre and Beirut dress their Balkan waltzes up in Urban Outfitters-approved indie-rockery, the West Philadelphia Orchestra keep it simple, and keep it straight, fusing klezmer and polka, and even the sounds of a Moroccan bazaar into their musical melting pot.
Maybe I’m just hard to please. Or maybe my expectations were too high. Then again, maybe I’m just a party pooper. As my friends and I headed home I found myself complaining that the balloons had dropped too slowly at midnight. Seriously, who does that? A few weeks later I bump into the West Philadelphia Orchestra’s leader, Gregg Mervine, in a West Philly bar and ask him about the show. It was great, he says, before adding that the band hightailed it to a warehouse party to continue playing into the wee hours. Perhaps that was what I needed: An instrumental intimacy so close you could the smell the valve oil wafting from a tooting trumpet as the keys are released; a sound so powerful it could be heard sans amplification; a celebration and not just another tour date.
Maybe that’s where I should have gone in the first place. Then again, I’m sure a drafty warehouse would have provided me with ample things to complain about as well.
Sci-Fi Author Ursula LeGuin's Stories of Class War, Religious Dissension, Identity Politics and More