A concert DVD is a great idea for Gogol Bordello. They cut fascinating figures onstage. Over to the left, there’s a grizzled old man sawing at an electric violin, looking like a Soviet Willie Nelson. After a few songs, a pair of young women show up pounding drums and washboards, wearing bizarre outfits that make them look like punk rock Alpine milkmaids. And at the center of all of this is frontman and singer Eugene Hütz, careening around the stage, striking angular one-legged poses that aren’t quite dance moves, and shouting his lyrics with deranged conviction.
Other than adding a visual counterpart to the hyperactive grooves found on Gogol Bordello’s other albums, the songs found on Gogol Bordello’s Live from Axis Mundi DVD aren’t terribly different from the studio versions. For the most part, this is alright. Ethnomusicologists would be fascinated by the way a band that ostensibly exists to mix punk rock and traditional Romani music will periodically lapse into interminable reggae grooves. This tendency is mercifully reined in here, appearing only on “Tribal Connection”.
Instead, they opt to keep the energy level high, lending a psychotic carnival atmosphere to songs like “Sally” and “Not a Crime”. Other highlights include the frenetic “Punk Rock Parranda”, which finds Hütz disappearing into the crowd on the upper balcony, and an especially enthusiastic take on “Wonderlust King”, which doubles as a kind of multicultural manifesto for the band.
A little unexpectedly, the CD half of Live from Axis Mudi does not actually contain any of the performances recorded live at Axis Mundi. Instead, it’s an odds-and-sods collection, mostly of live-in-studio BBC sessions. These tracks are drawn mostly from 2007’s Super Taranta!, and they are all improvements on the original album versions. Super Taranta! suffered from an overstuffed, saturated mix that inspired near-instantaneous ear fatigue and gave every song the same pummeling feeling. Here, the version are more direct. They’re not spare or unadorned, by any means; there are nine people in this band, and they’ve all got something to do. The difference is that each instrument gets its own spot in the mix and stays there. There aren’t 14 guitar overdubs, and it lends a greater dynamic range and sense of spontaneity to the performances.
Of particular note is this version of “American Wedding” — the prog-like riff that kicks it off benefits from some added punch, and it gains a theatrical middle section where the band mocks the perceived lameness of American parties. There are a couple of surprises, too: “Alcohol” starts off slower, with Hütz accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, and the nine-minute new song “You Gave Up (Roumania)” incorporates some dexterous metal elements into the band’s familiar stew of gypsy music and punk rock.
Tacked onto the end are a pair of outtakes — one each from Super Taranta! and Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike — and while neither are lost gems that would have appreciably changed the character of their parent albums, they do deliver the manic energy and sense of independence that we have come to expect from Gogol Bordello. The CD finishes with demo versions of “60 Revolutions” and “Immigrant Punk”, offering no revelations or stunning insights into Hütz’s creative process.
Despite conveying the sense of wild abandon that Hütz and company clearly value, Live from Axis Mundi is probably not the definitive Gogol Bordello document — that honor still belongs to 2005’s Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike. The audio disc is a little scattershot, and the craziness of Gogol Bordello live is best experienced after some existing familiarity with the original versions of the songs. For fans, however, this is essential.