Gogol Bordello's explosive Gypsy-punk

Gogol Bordello's drum majorette

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., January 25, 2004) – Eugene Hutz’s family was one of hundreds of thousands resettled in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in Ukraine after it exploded in April 1986. Apparently Hutz’s exposure to the devastating accident had an unintended effect that researchers might want to study: it made him one of the most explosively brilliant performers in modern rock music.

From the moment Hutz’s Gypsy-punk band, Gogol Bordello, took the stage at Club Helsinki on Saturday night, the place was transformed, partly owing to the relentless force of the music, but in large part due to Hutz’s manic charisma. This one-man nuclear bombshell of a frontman grabbed a hold of the large, wildly enthusiastic crowd, and steered it through the next 90 non-stop minutes of music with the cutting sneer of Iggy Pop and the feral antics of Johnny Rotten.

The entire club was Hutz’s stage, and the audience members – consisting in large part of ardent fans, many of whom reportedly traveled from New York City to see the band that usually sells out concert venues like the 1,200-seat Irving Plaza – were his playthings. With his eight-piece group crowded on the club’s tiny stage, Hutz made frequent forays around the room, body-surfing his way up to the bar from where he performed several times, climbing atop dining tables and getting in-your-face with fans, and lithely mounting drummer Eliot Ferguson’s bass drum and swinging from the sprinkler pipes.

Some of Gogol Bordello’s numbers were straightforward punk-rockers, while others were mini-dramas acted out with theatrical flair by Hutz and his small cadre of dancer/actor/percussionists Andra Ursuta and Pamela Racine. Hutz intoned lyrics and stories in a gutter blend of English, Russian, Ukrainian, Spanish and perhaps other languages, but they didn’t need any translation. He was clearly singing about the perils of cultural conformity, and as if to underline the point, his outfit and those of his dancers were colorfully blended patchworks of found objects, quilted fabrics, and ersatz uniforms.

Gogol Bordello’s music was a brash blend of Gypsy and Eastern European modes and melodies, sliced and diced with the psychedelic attention deficit of Frank Zappa and hypercharged with the electric rhythms of ska, funk and punk. Saxophonist Ori Kaplan, guitarist Oren Kaplan, violinist Sergey Rjabtzev and accordionist Yuri Lemeshev played linear riffs borrowed from klezmer and Balkan repertoires, and drummer Ferguson somehow kept it all together.

It was a show like none other ever experienced at Club Helsinki, but in its Eastern European character, its emphasis on folk-roots culture, and its appreciation of the political nature of art, it seemed to express the very essence of what the club is all about. After four years in operation, it seems, Club Helsinki found its house band. And for one night, it became Club Kiev.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on January 27, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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