There’s been an influx of gypsy, Yiddish, and Slavic–influenced music in the indie-rock scene in recent years, but I haven’t paid super close attention to it. On the one hand, it sounds like my kinda thang: I love when cultures intermingle, and I know a fair amount about eastern Europe and its cultural traditions. On the other hand, when I have seen some of these bands, I have been a little unimpressed. Beirut, in particular, halfway turned me off to this sub-genre: it is now so easy to find great music direct from the source, why would I bother listening to so-so simulations?
I mean, I would draw a parallel to how Eric Clapton almost made me never want to listen to blues. Even after I eventually worked through some of my issues with blues, I still find it hard to listen to Robert Johnson since I learned half of his songs via shitty Clapton versions.
At least with Clapton, Jeff Beck, and the like, there was a certain rationale working, decades ago: hardly anyone in England or the U.S. of the late-’60s had access to the original blues recordings, and old blues 78s must have been these amazing treasures that Clapton and Jimmy Page would have excitedly prattled on and on and on about to uninterested hippie chicks. There is a cultural context for white British blues.
But today it is so easy to listen to the genuine stuff that I found Beirut a little embarrassing. Just check the Live Music Archive instead! This track by Demiran Ćerimović and His Orkestar for example:
Anyway that is all an awkward segue into my discussion of Gogol Bordello‘s show at the 9:30 Club on the night before New Year’s Eve. I actually attended mostly on a whim — a group of my friends had tickets, but I never got one because of all my hesitations hinted at above, and it was long sold out. But I was having some drinks nearby and decided to go see if I could buy a ticket from anyone at the door, and was successful.
I ended up running into a number of people I knew at the show — one was there to see openers Man Man. I didn’t know a thing about this band going in. I don’t remember too much about their performance, either. There was a lot going on, lots of people on stage, a lot of exuberance. People were dancing in the crowd and it had some affinities with that gypsy-punk aesthetic that I am so ambivalent about. As I surf youtube trying to dredge up some more memories about Man Man, I find myself kinda liking them more than I did at the live show. They are more punk blues than I remembered. But then, we were upstairs in the balcony buying drinks and stuff during their performance. Distracted. I will definitely keep them in mind in the future, though.
We moved downstairs and into the dancing throngs early in Gogol Bordello’s set. Given all my hesitations, I liked it a lot more than I would have expected. I lived in Poland for a couple years, a while back, and Gogol Bordello’s connections with neighboring Ukraine made me feel nostalgic, comfortable, and amused. Before very long, I was like, “oh yeah, this is the kind of music those eastern Slavs are all about.” Dance beats, hip hop interludes, ballads, and folk-influenced songs that all kinda reminded me of punked-up variations the Polish/Ukrainian megapopular song “Hej Sokoły.” It was sort of the kind of music I wanted to hear, but never did, at all the terrible Warsaw discos.
Somebody I was talking to said something about them being like a Russian or gypsy version of The Pogues, and I don’t totally disagree. But Gogol Bordello have more diverse influences, and more dedication to keeping a party going and dance-able. And dance we all did.
They also played the following night, New Years Eve, and I am having trouble finding video evidence of the night I was there (probably everybody was too busy jumping around). Here’s a bad sideways clip somebody posted:
So are Gogol Bordello the “real thing,” are they authentic? Of course not! But they aren’t taking their influences too seriously, they are just having a lot of fun with music, including all those gypsy and Slavic influences. (More like Led Zeppelin riffing on Kansas Joe & Memphis Minnie, and less like Clapton making Bo Diddley boring.) I dug it, and will check them out more. Good show to end a good year with.
Here’s Mark Jenkins’ take on the same show, from the Washington Post.