It was the hottest night of the Philadelphia summer, with the temperature barely creeping down from the day’s high of 98 degrees. And I was about to walk into an inferno: Man Man’s uproarious live shows guarantee a sweaty crowd regardless of weather. With hundreds of the Philadelphia-based band’s friends and fans jumping, skanking, and crowd-surfing to their tunes, Man Man heated up the un-air-conditioned Starlight Ballroom in a way that rivaled the most delicious forms of Hell. Philadelphia stirred from its siesta, as the band set the room on flames in celebration of the setting of the overheated sun.
Barroom growls and whiskey melodies have earned Man Man comparisons to artists like Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart, and its slew of percussion-happy band members evoke the riotous rhythms of gypsy and klezmer acts. Add the carnival absurdity of Mr. Bungle, and you begin to get the picture: the group’s live shows are less performances than massive, all-out carnival stomps. Their songs are amalgams of falsetto choruses with rumbling lyrics, a dozen instruments, and complex, unpredictable beats. Their tempos swing from fast to slow and back, climbing from plodding polkas to all-out rockers created with the dizzying spin of drumsticks. If there is some fairytale pop planet where Bjork is the Ice Queen and the White Stripes are Hansel and Gretel, Man Man are the Lost Boys, whooping and drumming their hearts out while haranguing Captain Hook. Their music invites us into a riotous Neverland where we never have to grow up — as long as we sing loud enough to drown out the past, of course.
Poor Deerhunter. Their fairly tale is less sordid and far more mundane. For all the buzz the band and its oft-misunderstood frontman have received in recent months, their shoegazer revival walls-of-sound failed to inspire before the onslaught of Man Man’s energetic show, and, taken in the context of the craziness to come, receded even further into to depths of marginalized memory. Playing opener, the band issued a languorous wash of instruments that melded with the oppressive heat, as I waited with bored patience for the tight percussion, hyperactive energy, and crisp songs to come. Bradford Cox, super-thin due to Marfan Syndrome (not anorexia as early rumors so callously stated), spun around the stage to psychedelic lights in a sequined dress, but couldn’t conjure up the appropriate magic to captivate.
Man Man was another story of course. Dressed in their signature white with similarly white war paint spackled every which way, Man Man’s five musicians crowded around a pile of instruments on stage, passing around cowbells, melodicas, and drum sticks at a frenetic pace. The band played every song as if it were their last: even tunes tinged with a slow sadness, like “10lb Moustache” and “Van Helsing Boombox,” were layered with a heat-fueled intensity that left their melancholy in the dust. The crowd chanted and stomped along to “Engwish Brud” as if it were the anthem to some new nation where frantic dancing was required by law. Keyboardist and lead vocalist Honus Honus’s manic energy sent him jumping off instruments — a bold move given the fact that he was dressed in Atlanta-based opener Deerhunter’s sequined drag. For the duration of the set, virtually no one in either the band or the crowd slowed down.
Dispensing with the formality of emptying the stage before the encore, two band members drummed along to the homegrown crowd’s chanting before all of Man Man returned to the stage to finish off the night on a high-energy note. Then everyone fled for the door for their first breath of fresh air in an hour.