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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Gogol Bordello and the Hives Sizzle Paris

First Published at Blogcritics Magazine

Gogol Bordello and the Hives: an amphetamine freak’s dream bill. The two bands did indeed live up to the hype about their energy before a large crowd at Paris’s Zenith Sunday night. But the show left me pondering the incredible difference between live shows and recordings.

Gogol Bordello are special. Their slogan is cleverly diffusible near and far: Gypsy Punk Revolution. They serve a mesmerizing combination of spectacle and musical mayhem. The effect is an audience that looks as if they are at some crazy-ass Christian revival full of enraptured souls speaking in tongues. They have plenty of on stage exemplars. GB brought a couple of female dancers decked out in their best Halloween gypsy outfits, running in place so violently yet limberly as to raise their knees to their chins — at about 100/mph.

Sergey Ryabtsev adds a remarkably virtuosic punk violin, while Yury Lemeshev provides the accordion, and together they accomplish the palpable gypsy component of their sound.

But these traditional folk sounds and rhythms are accompanied by more typical punk guitar, drums, shredded acoustic guitar, and scruffy vocals from what looks like the Balkan Iggy Pop — Ukrainian-born-DJ-actor-gypsy punk icon, Eugene Hütz. GB are to traditional gypsy as the Pogues were to Irish folk. The gypsy sound is a natural for punkification, since it’s already often wild and fast in its roots (as many have already learned from the exports of Goran Bregovic). Add a wild, bare-chested, svelt but sinewy mustachioed front man, pouring wine on his shoulders and drinking from the bottle, and they make something unique and unforgettable.

There are more and more bands out there trying to mix gypsy sounds with punk and reggae (and the rap, dub, and metal doses injected into some GB songs), but they can’t match the creativity and unruliness of this bunch. I’ve been going to and writing about shows in Paris for four years now, and never before have I seen the local frogs leaping around as at the GB show. The sound is irresistible.

After GB, I was pretty sure I was going to have to write one of those concert reviews that claims the opening band blew the headliners away. But the Hives were worthy of their hype. The modish-looking lads strode out on the stage to a roaring applause, and thus began one of the most theatrical shows I’ve ever seen. I’m tempted to say 90% of their act is lead singer Howlin' Pelle Almqvists’ inter-songs banter and his intra-song aerobic set. His testosterone-injected cheerleader kicks and fancy footwork would give smooth Beck a run for his money. Guitarist Nicholaus Arson also does his share of crowd flirtation, jumping around and strumming his guitar hyperbolically. Vigilante Carlstroem and the comically named Dr. Matt Destruction add their steady but less flamboyant guitar riffs and bass. They seem older and quieter — the band's backbone — by comparison to the singer, other guitarist, and drummer.

While the charging Detroit garage rock tradition has long been marked by raucous exchanges with audiences (“Kick out the Jams, motherfuckers!” crowed the MC5), the Hives front man takes the narcissistic side of this genre to its extreme. “Nous sommes le meilleur!” (“We are the best!”) and "Je suis meilleur!" (I am the best) Almqvists declared on more than one occasion, in his affected Inspector Clouseau French. The swagger was sometimes a bit much for me. It’s sometimes difficult to know how much of it is part of the act and how much the singer’s craving adoration. It left me wanting the provocative antics of other spectacular garage punk leaders like Rick Sims of the Didjits, who provoked the audience lovingly to spitting contests with him. In that sense, the Hives were like Rick Sims PG-13. The Hives bring garage closer to pop than to punk.

Also typical of this genre is a fairly repetitive sound (which one can say of many genres such as reggae, punk, and rockabilly, to name a few). Most of their songs themselves seemed unmemorable to me, less about distinctive melodies, arrangements, and words, as about the frenetic guitar-glazed beat. I’m sure fans will tell me I’m just not listening closely enough if I think they all sound too much alike. Yet, there is a noticeable difference between smashes like “Hate to Say I Told You So,” “Tick, Tick, Boom” and the rest. They don’t all share that panache.

Despite the fact their music appeared somewhat repetitive and the banter was sometimes annoyingly megalomaniacal, I was in awe of their full throttle energy for well over an hour.

Both bands were touring fairly new albums, The Hives' just released The Black and White Album, and Gogol Bordello last fall's Super Taranta. But while their recordings are fun, they suffer in comparison to events like tonight. They are spectacular live, which can’t be bottled, even with the most state of the art recording gadgets. Tonight these two bands generated enough energy to power the City of Lights for a whole month. Raw Power? At least Medium Rare. Raw Fun? Definitely.--Jayson Harsin, April 20, 2008

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Formerly "Parisnormale: Paris Rocks"