Monterey Rocks #23 Gogol Bordello: Gypsy punk storms a banjo show

Eugene Hulz in Santa Ana | Photo by Rene Huemer

Voices of Monterey Bay is counting down the 25 greatest rock ‘n’ roll performances ever staged on the Central Coast. We’d love to hear about your favorite Monterey Bay performances, so please participate in our quick-and-easy poll. The following is No.  23:

By Joe Livernois

Think of a pack of wild pit bulls set loose on a Zen meditation center. Or a furnace blast in the Guggenheim. Or the sonic boom that destroys the tyranny of white noise. You might now have an idea of what it was like to experience Gogol Bordello at the Monterey Fairgrounds on Aug. 25, 2012.

This week’s addition to Monterey Rocks’ Top 25 represents the artists on the undercard of a show. They are the relative unknowns that dazzle a crowd with so much epic razzle and energy that the headliner is scarcely remembered.

It doesn’t happen often but it’s always a memorable experience when it does. There was the time, for instance, when Big Brother and the Holding Company were deemed so inferior that D.A. Pennebaker didn’t bother filming them at the Monterey Pop Festival — and then Janis Joplin shattered the relative calm around the Monterey Fairgrounds, and festival organizers scrambled to get Joplin back on stage so she and Pennebaker could recreate lightning in a bottle. Other unforgettable undercard acts included Robert Randolph & the Family Band, Red Baraat and Trombone Shorty at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Then there are the unexpected subversive crowd-pleasers, bands you might happen to catch on your way to something else, bands like Ozomatli and Dr. Loco’s Rockin’ Jalapeño Band or The Clash. Editor’s note: Stay tuned for more about The Clash in a future installment of Monterey Rocks.  

But Gogol Bordello emerges as the epic undercard memory on the Central Coast, not only for the sheer force of their frenetic energy but because of their peculiar emergence at a staid convocation of mandolins and denim overalls. You’d expect this sort of thing at the Hardly Strictly Festival at Golden Gate Park. But Monterey?

Gogol Bordello was among the openers for Mumford & Sons, appearing in Monterey County in 2012 during the height of M&S’s banjos-and-jangle success. GB clambered onto the Monterey Fairgrounds’ stage like a bolt of nuclear lightning during a tour Mumford & Sons called “Gentlemen of the Road.” And for all of Mumford & Sons’ hoopla at the time — remember all that M&S hoopla? — Gogol Bordello stole the show that day. 

With a name and a sound that hints of some outrageous Eastern European nation, Gogol Bordello came together on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 2009. This from its own publicity: “Combining elements of punk, gypsy and Brechtian cabaret, Gogol Bordello tells the story of New York’s immigrant diaspora through debauchery, humor, and surreal costumes.”

One of its founders, Eugene Hulz, is a Ukrainian émigré who fled the Chernobyl meltdown as a child. He and his family lived in refugee camps for years before immigrating to the United States, and he now works as the front man for Gogol Bordello, and as a popular disc jockey and as a film actor (“Everything is Illuminated,” “Filth and Wisdom”). Another founder, fiddler Sergei Riabtsev, was a Moscow theater director. 

With that sort of background, it’s no wonder that over-the-top theatricality is fundamental to GB. They are a raucous stage production, featuring accordionists and fiddlers pogoing around the stage like beetles on a hot frying pan. 

If you’ve never heard of Gogol Bordello, check out this recording of “I Would Never Want to be Young Again.” Now imagine witnessing all this madness on stage. And then imagine GB shaking it up at the “Gentlemen of the Road” deal, which also featured a lineup of sedate folkie bands like Two Gallants and poppy faux-experimental acts like Grouplove. Pure gypsy punk.

Shaky fan video of the performance at “Gentlemen of the Road,” posted on YouTube, is evidence of the audience’s wild response to GB’s infectious energy.

“They emerged onstage as a rowdy, sweaty gang of gypsy punks ready to burn the spot down,” remembers music writer Marcos Cabrera from Salinas. “Lead singer Eugene Hutz’s thick Ukrainian accent provided both authenticity to the GB’s particular blend of world conquering music and grandeur to its electric stomp. The best part: watching 10,000-plus newly minted fans lose their minds at a show where most of the bands had mandolin players.”   

And, as it happens, Gogol Bordello will be back in the Monterey Bay area next month, when they’re scheduled to play The Catalyst on Sept. 12.

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Joe Livernois

About Joe Livernois

Joe Livernois has been a reporter, editor and columnist in Monterey County for 35 years.

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