Gogol Bordello: Smuggling in the Immigrant Culture of Gypsy Punk

Originally seen on Tastemakers Online, September 20, 2017

Gogol Bordello is what might happen if a drummer and a bassist put out a call for an exceptional frontman, and took five of them. The real story is this: the Ukrainian immigrant frontman Eugene Hütz (who you might already know as the life of the movie Everything Is Illuminated, as Elijah Wood’s translator) met some future bandmates in New York, including the punk-dandy violinist Sergey Ryabtsev. The band made it their mission to “smuggle in” immigrant music to the “English-speaking world”, calling their style “gypsy punk”. Now, Gogol Bordello is beloved by all kinds of Americans for their cross-genre party mood and lively performances.

The charisma of the group is almost overwhelming. I heard one concertgoer describe it best: “they put on a very interactive show.” This is not a show for people who really value their personal space. You never notice the general lack of eye contact in live music until you’re in a room with Gogol Bordello, where a fashionable musical pirate stares you right in the face, egging you on as much as you are him.

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Ryabtsev is especially delighted by audience involvement, leaning out into the crowd and even offering up the mic to audience members. When it’s time to clap, he bounces his bow cheerfully against his electric violin; I consider Ryabtsev to be the benevolent second-in-command in the Frontman Fraternity. Rotating places with him at the left of the stage is Boris Pelekh, buzzing with excitement as he shreds through guitar solos. On the other side, Pasha Newmer prowls and surveys the crowd in a self-satisfied accordionist’s power-stance. Sharing featured percussive and vocal duties, Pedro Erazo and Ashley Tobias each fill a sort of hype man/woman role. Erazo brings out the group’s Latin influences on hand percussion and in raps every few songs. Tobias spends less time onstage than I would have liked – when she is around, she’s dishing out incredible, soulful vocals and embodying the female perspective in costume and diva posturing. And then, of course, there’s Hütz, swaggering around between his charismatic crewmates, half-singing and half-shouting in his heavy accent. I was starting to get worried several songs in when he was still wearing a shirt, but he reliably ditched it soon after. He’s always been famous for his wayward pants on his skinny frame. This time he wore a belt.

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In style, Gogol Bordello is essentially a jam band. Their studio music isn’t exactly easy listening – but thanks to their charisma, musicianship, and a few sing-along melodies here and there, many fans who don’t necessarily listen to their music at home would never miss a live show. In this respect, the band Lucky Chops is one of the rare examples of a flawlessly matched opener, utilizing a trombone, tenor sax, trumpet, sousaphone, and drum kit to validate every band geek’s wildest dream of actually being the life of the party. The mashup cover “Funkytown / I Feel Good” blew everything else they played away, and was one of the most hectically wonderful live performances I’ve seen by any band. Gogol Bordello, on the other hand, has the incredibly unique quality of never slowing down, and never needing to. Their two biggest hits, “Wanderlust King” and “Start Wearing Purple” were especially energized by fans who knew the lyrics, but with such egalitarian energy, almost no moment was more or less exciting than any other.

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You do not need to be a Gogol Bordello fan to enjoy the hell out of their live show. But by the end of it, how could you not be? This band has some serious aspirations about spreading culture, immigrant positivity, and good times – check out their numerous interviews with outlets like NPR and PBS. Their website even has a mission statement: “to provoke…a neo-optimistic communal movement towards new sources of authentic energy.” To attend a Gogol Bordello show is to be invited to the gypsy wedding of die-hard artistic integrity and punk catharsis. We should all be honored to go.

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