[2 November 2004]
Sleepytime Gorilla Museum
By the time the man whispers his “Ode to the futurists in the Age of Machines” I’m no longer fazed. He says something about an “electric pancreas.” Apparently one of his bandmates is the world’s finest player. I don’t know what that means, but then, the whole thing is dipped in metaphor. No, that’s the wrong phrase. The red hood, the white make-up, the matching black dresses worn by both the guys and girls: Better call them courtesy details.
The band’s name, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, refers to an obscure early printing press, some purveyor of “black math” and other archaic and anarchistic theories of destructive computation. I don’t know what that means either, but it is appropriately creepy.
Some context? Nothing sets the stage for a night of burlesque-inspired Ukrainian folk-punk like a bald torture victim appearing fresh off the rack to twist his emaciated body in time with the banging of kitchen sinks (literally) and rusty saw blades (also literally). Gogol Bordello will take the stage later, but its better to deal with one mindfuck at a time, and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum is certainly that.
As the overhead lights fade into near black, the soft purr of a violin saturates the room. With a flash from below a dark figure appears, veiled in red. The man stands still and silent, allowing the audience to absorb his features: a tangled beard, a half-shorn scalp met in the middle of his head by long, twisted dreadlocks. More foot-lamps ignite, casting shadows across other faces. The violin drops off and the dirge begins, a melancholy theatrical number sung by the man who, as it turns out, has the voice of a renaissance festival king. “Low” isn’t an adequate descriptor, though “full-bodied,” and “rousing” aren’t far off the mark. Casting out his arms—standard stagecraft really—the singer expounds on the notes, adding a melodramatic air to his delivery.
It’s at this point that the singer’s “shadow” appears, making his way to a parallel podium in front of the stage. Like a contortionist, or perhaps a particularly fluid mime, the man twists his arms in swimming strokes, mimicking the singer’s motions.
The slow melody builds into a creepy goth-rock number, losing some of its initial appeal. The singer’s soft vocals give way to a Rob Zombie growl, admittedly a bit derivative. The yelps are complimented, however, by beautifully feminine, operatic notes issued by the band’s violinist.
SGM’s best moments come when the singer stands back, allowing the mini-orchestrations to expand, a slur of distorted guitars augmented by sparse violin tinkering and the disconcerting sound of the second percussionist as he bangs away at saw blades set on cymbal stands. The performance ends with a stunning array of throat groans merging into a round of assorted grunts and sighs. Oddly harmonious.
I don’t now who these guys are, perhaps some bastard love child of Einstürzande Neubauten, Rasputina and Ministry. What I do know is that the band’s execution, their deliciously over-the top shtick, is awe-inspiring, an exciting foray into theatrical melodrama.
So now I’m a bit shaken. A memory is coming back though, of Russian girls in line outside the club, arguing in thick accents. That’s right, I’m here for a bit of culture, to see what happens when a Hungarian gypsy, enamored with punk rock, gets mixed up with a theatrical composer.
Emerging onto the stage alone, singer Eugene Hütz is undeniably seedy. His pornstar moustache compliments the hair, chronically unbrushable, as it flips back and forth across his face. Like the opening act, Gogol Bordello’s appeal is in the details, the bandanas carefully tied around the singer’s arms, the way Hütz randomly licks the neck of his t-shirt. Now at center stage, the Hungarian bangs an acoustic guitar, letting his accent rip, perhaps pushing it further then he does in real life.
The energy in Hütz’s singing is undeniable, but he’s no solo performer. Quickly joined by a full ensemble—guitar, bass, drums, and violin—he sheds his guitar and begins to run around the stage, beating his butt with the microphone.
As the band breaks into “Never Want to Be Young Again” the audience, a strange mix of 20-something professionals, women of exotic varieties, and mopey mall-goths, erupts into a distinctly Russian mosh pit. Bodies fling against bodies, while carefully hopping up and down, legs kicking forward in an attempt to capture some Eastern European aesthetic.
Hütz bides his time, falling across the stage, bending limbs—he looks like a young Iggy Pop, disconcertingly stretching his body as he screams into the microphone. Moving into the raucous “Immigrant Punk,” two young women emerge dressed in full gypsy attire—they look a bit like Madonna, circa 1985. They excitedly stroke washboards while screaming at the crowd. Just as Hütz’s punk rock yelps reach their height the band drops the distortion, falling into a folky Hungarian hoedown. The rough and tumble violinist, former theater composer Sergei Riabtsev, barges in, biker hat and all, seizing the stage and tearing into a rousing fiddle solo.
This is the band’s strength, an ability to incite a riot with hard-edged punk rock and then cast the listener without warning into a Hungarian folk number. For the song “Bordello Kind of Guy” the chorus girls return, each dwarfed by a marching band bass drum.
By this point most of the women in the room have given way to the, apparently universal, desire to imitate Russian dance. I lose focus of the band, watching a young goth girl spin in circles, lost in a jig that resembles Riverdance more than anything Hungarian.
Back onstage, Hütz is beating a bucket balanced atop his microphone stand. The trick, of course, is that the mic is still on the stand and under the bucket. Low tinny bangs flood the PA system.
As the band plays a song about a barking dog, Hütz again terrifies the sound-guy, this time tumbling the stand into the audience. The staffer who runs to retrieve it looks horrified, lost among these mischievous characters.
The band’s circus atmosphere does get a bit repetitive as the end approaches—their bag of tricks is impressive, but not inexhaustible—though the audience doesn’t seem to mind.
As the band breaks into a final number, the violin screams and the gypsy girls return with their bass drums. The crowd, still enamored, chugs along with the group, whipping around in circles. The song begins to lose form, minutes pass as the banging continues and the audience storms the stage, one final blow to silence the band’s seemingly limitless energy.
If there were a curtain, and there should be for this type of theatre, it would now fall triumphantly.