Two words: Coat check. Use it. Then you can safely enjoy the rest of the Gogol Bordello onslaught without worrying about your keys, phone, coat, glasses, hat, dangle earnings, purse, messenger bag or whatever else you thought you’d need in the pit at a punk show.
Now from what I can tell there are three Gogol Bordello audience types. Those that stay out of the pit, those that brave the pit and those that didn’t get the memo there was a pit. The elder punks made the PSA to many around them but maybe people were defiant in having secured their phone viewing spot and had no intentions of moving or maybe they thought Gogol Bordello wasn’t punk because punk was dead. Well it isn’t and 30 seconds into the show all the ladies done up for a night out of selfies and live music leaning against the railings by the stage quickly got their wake up call when the slamming left drinks spilled and a phone ejected from a hand out across a crowded floor. And there were others. Oh were there others… from the girlfriends using their boyfriends as shields to the old folks in the audience who had to be rescued by elder punks before bones got broken.
It was amusing because the bay area used to have a thriving punk scene and people knew it and knew what that meant to go to a punk show and CERTAINLY to enter the pogo pit and slam. Sometimes it was a fight for your life. So it’s good to see the elder punks watching out for others while keeping that rough riot spirit alive with the help of the inferno that is Gogol Bordello. I’ve seen some amped up shows in my day (Squirrel Nut Zippers for one, Burger Boogaloo fest is another) but nothing comes close to the fever pitch achieved at The Warfield on Friday the 13th. And it was a very lucky Friday the 13th if you were in attendance.
And for me personally it went deeper than expected. Gogol Bordello was an act I discovered doing my PopOff! show. So I knew of them and I knew they were popular to a degree (they’d been on stage with Madonna for one thing). I also knew they referred to themselves as New York Gypsy Punk and often spoke about the underdogs and outcasts in their music. But I was not entirely familiar with their catalog. And so it was not so much the songs but my trip to Ireland that came back to me during that concert as I was being thrust to and fro like I was in the bowels of an emigrant coffin ship in a storm on it’s way to Far Americay. In Ireland I found myself connecting to ancestors I will never meet, people who took a chance on some very iffy sailing situations. And Gogol Bordello felt like the band playing in third class for the lower classes on one of those ships. The kind of group one cobbles together from the local community to sing songs about the homeland or injustice or immigrating. The kind of all night music jam that goes on for hours as people get stoned and break out into dance or into extended fiddle battles. It was raucous, it was loud, and most importantly it was fucking punk. And there is a beauty and importance in that last phrase that I cannot understate.
The front man Eugene Hütz dominated the stage climbing on speakers and swinging around a bottle of open liquor with a satisfied sneer. He killed one guitar, and downed two microphone cords that night swinging the cord along. And credit to the roadies for keeping on top of all this without ever getting in the way of the show. Hütz was often urging the audience to egg him on to test just how loud and wild he and the band could get. And boy did they. For almost a full three non-stop hours they attacked the audience. The lead guitarist Boris Pelekh was like watching Angus Young in his prime shredding on guitar while also jumping and spinning round across the stage and Sergey Ryabtsev was his violin counter part. Tommy T (from Ethiopia) on bass and Alfredo Ortiz (who had done stints with Beastie Boys) on drums acted like iron nails holding the ship together. Pasha Newmer the accordionist came out for one song near the end and the way he strutted about and held his accordion was like a Street Fighter video game character where at any minute the accordion could become a weapon to defeat your foes and he had the biceps to prove it. The whole show was like watching pro wrestlers taunting an opponent and that opponent was the audience. How many rounds would we last. And judging by the set lists from other shows some audiences didn’t last as long as we did. When a show “ends” we all know the routine; applause for a little bit and get the obligatory encore. Except that Gogol Bordello didn’t come back. We stomped and chanted for a good 8-10 minutes before they reentered the ring. And maybe they had to use the bathroom and get water. But what it felt like to me was some old school live show business where an encore WAS NOT guaranteed the audience had to earn it. And I guess we earned it because the encore was just as intense and high octane. With vocalist and percussionist Pamela Racine coming to the stage again with her giant booming marching band bass drum banging like it was revolution time. I imagine that in another era the show would have gone on for a third encore but when the encore was over the venue lights were flipped on to tell us all to get out.
Now I want to emphasize again that for me it felt like a kind of immigrant Gypsy/Irish/Balkan/German hoedown. The kind people would throw down to pass the time on their voyage to the US that’s assuming they even took instruments with them. Or the kind of party they would throw down in the new country after a week of labor on the railroads or in the coal mines or in factories. A total release of energy, of anxiety, of sorrows, angers, joys, and loves. And punk at it’s core for all the posturing of the middle fingers in the end is about the release. It is lifting the lid on the pot of societal goulash and taking a big whiff and letting off steam albeit often in a very critical and pointed way. And for a lot of people myself include this kind of release is what keeps us from snapping in our daily routines.
And this audience was ready for that release. Even those who accidentally found themselves in the midst of the slam riot, whether they stayed or fled for fear of injury clearly needed the release from all that is going on as told to us by the media. But what the media is not telling us is how music like this unites us. It’s mood and it’s messages bring people together to bash and bop and, yeah for some, sit in the balcony and just raise a fist occasionally. Speaking of which, if you are in the pit close the stage as is often the case the sound is loud and muddled and one would think from that alone it is more chaotic noise than music. But by the encore I had left the pit to listen in the back of the house and yeah these folks are the real deal. It’s not the classic messy uneducated musicianship of punks early years. This band is TIGHT.
A highlight for me was the opening act Nu-Folk Rebel Alliance a duo that featured Gogol Bordello member Pedro Erazo (percussion, vocals, rapping ukulele, laptop) and Leo Minimum Tek (guitar vocals). They came off like the leaders of some underground insurgents. And as if to prove my feelings, they immediately invoked the sacred spirit of Joe Strummer by taking punk classics by The Clash and dipping them heavily into a vat of psychedelic chicha, that 60s/70s Peruvian Cumbia sound and filtered it through a border radio. Hearing songs like, “Rudie Can’t Fail”, “Straight To Hell”, “London Calling” (the song and album celebrating it’s 40th this year BTW), reworked in this fashion often with added or modified Spanish lyrics set a tone for the worldly music of the evening and reminded us all that punk like any genre goes WAY beyond imaginary lines drawn by political leaders or lines drawn by music nerds with a Dymo embossing genre label maker. I just had to let go of the fact that the mention of his name did not bring cheers from much of the crowd. But the elder rudegirls and rudeboys new what was up and we all sang along. And the songs still resonate and still hold up and still sound like a revolution. So it’s nice to hear that while they may no longer be the only band that matters, they still matter to a lot of people.
And so after 3 hours I left smelling like somebody’s else’s beer; sweaty, with a mess of mangled fur on my head thinking how worn out I was and then realizing for this troupe it was day 2 of three days in row doing this full on riot and the next stop was a beer festival in Petaluma!!! Now, I’m not that old but these cats have been going on 20 years with this punk circus and to maintain that energy certainly could make one feel old. But nah- not me. I didn’t feel old. I felt satisfied like the good fight is still going strong in honor of the past immigrants and at the same time speaking for present immigrants and so the next time Gogol Bordello comes to town I will join the fight again and I hope you do to.
WHAT YOU WITNESSED OR WHAT YOU MISSED:
NU-FOLK REBEL ALLIANCE:
Straight To Hell
Brand New Caddilac
Rudie Can’t Fail
Through the Roof ‘n’ Underground
Not a Crime
I Would Never Wanna Be Young Again
Immigraniada (We Comin’ Rougher)
Heartbreak Hotel (Elvis Presley cover)
When the Trickster Starts A-Poking (Bordello Kind of Guy)
Last One Goes the Hope
Start Wearing Purple
Pala Tute Play
I Can’t Find My Mind/Wild One (The Cramps & The Dee Jays cover)
I Just Realized