Gogol Bordello thinks globally, rocks locally

Immigrant punks take Chicago

By Blair Thornburgh

Accordions, violins, and Theremins are not instruments that are typically associated with punk music. But, as Gogol Bordello—the one-of-a-kind New York City band of “gypsy punks”—proved this past Friday at the Congress Theater, they can still rock hard in the right hands.

The group’s sound is at once instantly recognizable and difficult to sum up. Front man Eugene Hütz blends Romani sounds from his native Ukraine with a bombastic and unabashed mix of rock and dub, and their playful punk aesthetic is well summed up in their trademark slingshot logo hung behind the band during the show. Hütz literally hit the stage running as the set began, and his energy was relentless throughout. Rangy, mustachioed, and shirtless, he sang with the requisite snarl and gusto to sustain the driving force behind the upbeat first half of the show, his charming-scoundrel personality coming through in winks and grins on songs like “Wonderlust King.”

As Hütz swaggered to and fro across the stage, strumming his sticker-plastered guitar, his bandmates gamely kept pace, frequently coming forward to give the crowd a few high-fives. The band never seemed to lose steam, charging into eight or nine-minute renditions of their songs, jumping and swinging all the while. Hütz, keeping up his stamina with swigs from a bottle of wine, was adept at leading the musicians at a tight pace without losing control or interest. “Start Wearing Purple,” one of the band’s signature songs, wound up gradually from an easygoing tempo to an all-out, no-holds-barred frenzy.

The atmosphere was like a cross between a carnival and an especially raucous night out—the audience jumped, swilled beer, and threw the occasional punch in time with the incessant beat of the music, and more than a few crowd surfers tumbled to the sticky floor as their supporters rushed to the stage. But, in keeping with the jovial-yet-badass sounds of the band, the mood was far from hostile and there was a sense of genuine camaraderie, both onstage and between the audience members themselves. The only ones not won over to the ambiance, it seemed, were the bouncers, who remained stoic as ever despite Hütz’s insistence that “these guys too—they’re going to start wearing purple soon.”

Openers DeVotchKa, though lacking the electrified punk edge of the headliners, were met with much enthusiasm from the crowd. With an equally unconventional combo of traditional rock elements and sousaphone, Theremin, and bouzouki, their slower and more introspective songs were an excellent warm-up for the main act. Lead singer Nick Urata was calm, soulful, and agreeable, even as he was upstaged by the band’s silent but most engaging member: an aerial dancer who twirled and spun on twin cascades of fabric as the musicians played.

Returning to the stage for an encore, Gogol Bordello gave themselves and the audience a quick breather with a low-key rendition of “Alcohol,” from their 2007 album Super Taranta!, followed by slightly newer songs. If the crowd seemed weary at this point, it was only from physical exhaustion: No one seemed to want to let the band leave the stage. By the show’s end, crowd and band alike were dazed but grinning, and it seemed that Hütz was spot-on in his prediction that “all your sanity and wits, they will all vanish—it’s just a matter of time.”