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Tuesday, March 28, 2023 — Houston, TX

Tuesday is made for gypsy punks: Gogol Bordello comes to town

By Bursten     3/13/08 7:00pm

Imagine taking the Grandmaster Flash out of Gnarls Barkley and replacing it with a Weird Al vs. Borat bar brawl: Presto, you would have Gogol Bordello, the self-described gypsy punk band that is slated to confuse, enthrall and energize audiences at the Meridian on Tuesday. The eight-piece set of rockers from New York City, by way of custom, furiously blends metallic core rhythms with instrumentation that is decidedly out of the mainstream. Accordions and fire buckets, as well as percussive dancing, are common fare for Gogol stages. This is not your mama's world music. It is no goodwill musical mission, no sweet-voiced cultural petit four. It is impossible to walk away from Gogol feeling like you have witnessed a quaint foreign concert, a Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The gypsy punks do not allow audiences to just listen to the snarling, heavily accented songs and lyrics: Listeners have to meet Gogol head-on and immerse themselves in the bizarre culmination of five continents' worth of musicians, or they will end up running away screaming.

Example: Take the band's, um, idiosyncratic, lyrics and vocals. Lead vocalist Eugene Hütz drops articles like a freshman pre-med dropping honors orgo: with a reckless abandon full of exuberance and the thrill of crossing new boundaries. But unlike the pre-med, who follows in the steps of countless Rice first-years before her, Hütz's foreclosure of "a"s and "the"s produces a wildly original lyric effect: The unexpected patterns of diction make listeners pay attention to the content of the lyric narratives. Audiences actually hear what Hütz has to say, despite his vocal caricaturization of the gravelly, screaming punk front-man.

And Hütz and his cohorts have a lot to say. Their lyrics stray afield of the standard punk fare, at least in part. Sure, they tout adolescent rebellion in songs like "Sally," where Hütz describes "a fifteen-year-old girl from Nebraska / Gypsies were passing through her little town / They dropped something on the road, she picked it up / And cultural revolution right away begun."

But the narratives also manage to incorporate a number of insights into non-American traditions and societies, as in the opening of "American Wedding": "Have you ever been to American wedding? /Where is the vodka, where's marinated herring? / Where is the supply that gonna last three days?" And from "Immigrant Punk" comes issues of bureaucratic prejudice and naturalization: "Upon arriving to melting pot / I get penciled in as a goddamn white / Now that I am categorized / Officer gets me naturalized."

Of course, some of the lyrics are just plain fun. One of the band's better-known songs, "Start Wearing Purple," is about just that. Hütz growls about the benefits of wearing purple to a background of violin, accordion and Eastern European grumbling. The Ukranian back-up vocals are a common theme in Gogol songs, partly as a tip of the hat to the band's namesake, Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol.

Like Gogol, Hütz prides himself on his ability to smuggle Ukrainian - and, in Hütz' case, Romani - culture into traditional Western forms of art. Beyond Gogol Bordello, Hütz has taken on a number of side projects to help further this goal. He played opposite Elijah Wood as an Ali G-like translator in 2005's Everything is Illuminated. And he has been a regular DJ at Manhattan's Mehatana, better known simply as the Bulgarian Bar, throughout the watering hole's rise to Lower East Side infamy.

But with an international bordello of immigrant punks behind and beside him, Hütz is undoubtedly at his best. Their Tuesday takeover at the Meridian will be one of the better Houston concerts of 2008, even in the face of the Rodeo. Hütz has been known to crowd-surf on top of his own drums and fire buckets while continuing to sing and play. It is hard to imagine Big & Rich, the Rodeo's Tuesday performers, getting that passionate about their music. So while his Thai-Israeli-Japanese-Ecuadorian-Ethiopian-Romani cadre of punks may not have the lids-and-spurs crowd at their show next week, Tuesday's best concert will undoubtedly be the one with vodka, herring, gypsy punks - and plenty of purple.

Julia Bursten is a Lovett College senior and former Thresher editor in chief.

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