It's good to know that the era of the spectacle rock show is not over. Theatrical road shows like Sufjan Stevens and The Decemberists still bring literary overtones to their over-the-top performances, and epic live rockers like Arcade Fire, Mumford & Sons, and Dr. Dog keep the spirit of high-energy rock passion alive.
But Gogol Bordello, man... you've gotta see it to believe it.
Half the phenomenon is the collective psychosis of the crowd. If you've never seen a rock venue jam-packed with a live assortment of pre-electroshock therapy patients of all ages dancing and speaking various languages (mostly yelling), then you probably haven't been to a Gogol Bordello show.
And the musicians, a post-Klezmer dub-core troop of meso-eurasian folk-thrashers, does everything to satisfy the imagination's lust for a band of violin-and-accordion-wielding James Bond mini-villains. Gogol Bordello played two sets. After playing all their hits, they came back to play some of their newer, quieter, (less crowd-pleasing but frankly, more musically compelling) semi-anthems. We heard an ode to alcohol (which, exhilaratingly, I couldn't figure out if it was meant to be ironic — but I did determine that it was definitely not a Barenaked Ladies cover), as well as a version of Stan Jone's "Ghost Riders in the Sky" (which fit their second-set westerny motif).
There was something truly phenomenal about the Gogol show that really stuck with me more than anything else. It came during their infamous "Star Wearing Purple" — a chorus which seems an oddly vapid choice of central mantra for a band otherwise dense with social and macro-psychological messages. Although, to be fair, I don't know what kind of megalo-fascist European regimes in the gypsy-punk zeitgeist are represented by the tertiary colors. On the other hand, it might just be a meaninglessly catchy turn of the phrase. (Does that make it less important? Not my call.)
During the climax of "Start Wearing Purple"— which could aptly be described as the climax of the evening, if not the climax of year 2010 — there is a carefully crafted build-up to a communal spazz-out the size and potency of which I have never seen. Not at Pearl Jam, not at Roger Waters, Radiohead, Jimmy Page and the Black Crows, Gorillaz, Weezer, Phish, Primus, nowhere.
At the moment of choral release, a capacity crowd of over-the-top lunatics powered up their Dragon Ball Z war-screams and 6 foot vertical leaps to create a supernova of psycho-kinetic energy that nearly sublimated in a pair of flying electric-chair inmates sliming the venue and destroying amplifiers. Insurance premiums would rise unmanageably.
What is it about an old fashioned sing-along (especially a drinking song, which, lyrically, is not what "Start Wearing Purple" is about but, aesthetically, it's about getting annihilated on vodka and punching your landlord's wife in the forehead) which harnesses the power of emotional energy in large groups? How does Gogol Bordello take a phrase like "Start wearing purple for me NOW!" and turn it into the most important thing for a thousand would-be soccer-rioters to lose their shit and scream at each other in perfect unison? Is that simply the power of a good hook? And, do dangling violin and minor-chord acoustic flourishes with symbol-rolls prime vocal participation through-the-roof from any mob of music fans? Or does the Bordello command some sort of neural pathway to the rowdy immigrant within all of us? Maybe it's different for different fans. I know when they return I look forward to entering the Bordello again. A spiritually charged house of hooligan horrors that makes for a memorable evening of high-powered, brutal flamboyance that you'll never forget. Even though I don't personally relate to the Eastern European immigrant experience, this new fan was sung about by John Popper: "The hook brings you back."
Author's cut of article posted on www.Citypaper.net in December, 2010.