Few bands can match the high-voltage energy of Gogol Bordello. Though I’d seen them twice before (well, one-and-a-half times) at Bonnaroo 2007 and 2008, I had yet to see them at a concert proper. But for their first concert in New Hampshire they hit the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom – unusual in that there is no casino. The venue website says the word casino comes from the 19th century word for “gathering place,” and since it was founded in 1899, I guess the explanation holds. Regardless, there’s plenty of more legal gambling along the boardwalk in the form of arcade after arcade, giving the tourists something to do on rainy days.
The venue seemed far from full, but those who were there – many, like myself, having driven up from Boston – were diehards. They jumped, moshed, crowd-surfed and, most importantly, sang along to every word. Well, once Gogol Bordello came on they did. First they had to endure an hour of Pedro Erazo’s meandering DJing, where the Gogol Bordello hype man (more on him later) seemed even more bored than the audience. One vaguely ethnic song was played after another as roadies soundchecked over them, eliciting cries of “You suck” and “Go home” from an increasingly restless crowd.
When he mercifully ended fifty-five minutes later than he should have to let the band come on, the crowd immediately perked up. And by perked up, I mean, went absolutely insane. Gogol’s songs are tailor-made for participation, with ready-made shout-along parts like “TAAAAAAA…taran…taran…tata!” in “American Wedding” and the title line’s endless repeats in “Not a Crime” and the crowd used every line as an opportunity to yell, every beat as an opportunity to jump.
The energy on the floor was only matched by that on stage. Seeing my second show this summer, you realize much of the onstage fun is highly choreographed. When lead singer and wild man Eugene Hütz drums on a bucket, it’s at exactly the same time he did so at Bonnaroo, and likewise with any holding the mic stand out to the audience or jumping into the crowd. However, enough of him and various band members running around the stage, trying to get every corner of the place jumping, is spontaneous to keep it interesting for a second-timer. With band members from the Ukraine, Ethiopia, Russia, Israel, Ecuador and, oh yeah, America, the “gypsy punk” stayed off-beat enough to be interesting – violin and accordion on every song – but mainstream enough to keep a driving jump-along beat.
They were assisted in their efforts by the three people whose musical contributions were negligible, but on-stage antics contributions enormous. The Asian component of the international mix, Pamela Racine and Elizabeth Sun spent most of the show sprinting around the stage, only to stop for the occasional dance move, like forest nymphs with more elaborate costumes. Their enthusiasm was only rivaled by hype man Pedro Erazo, whose percussion duties were secondary to his attempts to keep the crowd excited – something he seemed to have no interest in his DJ guise.
The songs they chose could all have been expected, but were featured enough passion onstage that mostly faithful versions were nothing to complain about. Quasi-hit “Start Wearing Purple” loses appeal fast once the novelty wears off, but they mixed it up by beginning it with Pedro singing the chorus in Spanish, confusing audience members who tried to sing along in English. They went through many of the tracks off their 2007 release Super Taranta!, which I declared best album of the year here, kicking everything off with “Ultimate” and hitting such gypsy anthems as “Wanderlust King” and “Your Country” along the way. Many high points were their older material, however, particularly the 15-minute “Undestructable” that closed the show, following one false ending with another as the crowd practically frothed at the mouth. Though the band may do basically the same show from one town to the next, few this side of the Boss can match the take-no-prisoners energy of Eugene and his crew of international misfits.