Jiving With Gypsies
If you’ve ever heard Gogol Bordello play, particularly at one of their adrenalin charged live concerts, the last thing you’ll do is classify them as folk musicians. This nine-member band from New York’s gritty Lower East Side is raucous and boisterous and I’ve seen them described somewhere as “demented”. After listening to a couple of live recordings, I wouldn’t dream of calling their gypsy infused, non-stop, high-energy performances folk music, at least not by the conventional yardstick of what that genre represents. Their music has elements of East European gypsy music, western punk and alternative rock. Not surprisingly, Gogol Bordello, led by frontman and singer Eugene Hutz, an Ukrainian-American, is described as a gypsy-punk band. I’ll tell you why I mentioned the folk music genre in a few seconds but first a bit about Gogol Bordello.
Gogol Bordello frequently put on bizarre costumes and put up ribald, even debauched, acts. Hutz has fiddlers, guitarists, accordionists and drummers and percussionists to provide the fast-paced background to his often surreal lyrics and rambunctious stage shows—one of them featured immigrant Ukrainian vampires armed with supernatural powers! Two good albums from Gogol Bordello to try out: Live from Axis Mundi and Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strikes. And two songs to listen to (they’re on those albums): ‘Alcohol’ and ‘Think Locally, Fuck Globally’. Both typify the swagger and exuberant fun that these guys have.
Now for that folk thing I mentioned at the beginning. On the last weekend of July, Gogol Bordello played at this year’s Newport Folk Festival, a historic folk music fest that has been on for the past 52 years. Newport has a hoary past: not only has it catapulted legends such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez to fame, it has also had the dubious distinction of seeing a booing audience of enraged purists when Dylan turned electric on stage in 1965.
It is a similar breed of purists that has been lamenting what they think is the dilution of the ‘folk quotient’ at Newport every year in the past decade. That reaction isn’t surprising because in recent years, the picturesquely set Newport fest has hosted indie rock and pop musicians, making for a more eclectic mix of genres rather than sticking to the strictly folk. Purveyors of blues, rock and even punk are not uncommon on the stages that make up Newport’s two-day oeuvre of gigs.
This year, Gogol Bordello may have rocked the stage with their characteristic offering of punk laced with East European gypsy music but they weren’t alone. The Decemberists, Portland’s indie rockers were back, as was veteran punk rocker Elvis Costello. But there were also the veterans. Pete Seeger, who’s probably never missed a single year (he’s 92), and Earl Scruggs (87) were there, on occasion even sitting in with musicians a quarter of their age!
I wasn’t in Newport. I was nowhere near that Rhode Island destination, which overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. But thousands of miles away, thanks to the internet, I caught many of the archived concerts of this year just a few days after the festival. It was a treat filled with discoveries. I got to hear so many new artists. The sweet harmonies of Joy Williams and John Paul White who call themselves The Civil Wars; or the folk with a kick delivered by Middle Brother, a sort of super folk band that is made up of members drawn from three bands—Dawes, Deer Tick and Delta Spirit; I heard Tegan & Sara, twins from Canada, who are actually a spunky punk-laced pop band but who held the Newport audience in thrall.
I discovered so many other new outfits: Brown Bird, an unknown band who may get their recognition after their stellar performance at Newport–they blend Americana with Eastern European sounds (ahem, but they’re miles away from the raucousness of Gogol B!); rustic sounding The Cave Singers; the high-speed sound of punkish bluegrass band (and what a name they have!), Trampled By Turtles—if you like The Avett Brothers, you will surely like these guys. There were so many more. And they’re all out there for you to explore. Just visit Martha’s Vineyard Radio or NPR and you can have a blast.