New York-based "gypsy punks" Gogol Bordello don't exactly fit the conventional image of a great rock-and-roll band.
The band is built on a traditional guitar-bass-drum foundation, but the sonic signature is in the crosscurrent of violin and accordion and in the Marco Polo pogo-ing of various extra percussion and extra voices. It's a communal clatter but with a frontman. And, oh, what a frontman.
In concert, lanky Ukrainian Eugene Hutz runs the show with an acoustic guitar — which he sometimes plays — strapped to his back, testifying into the microphone via (intentionally?) broken English lyrics that manage to be both conversational and packed with picket-sign- or bumper-sticker-worthy slogans. He's flanked by two retirement-aged Russian tough customers — they might be mob heavies or grizzled stevedores — on accordion and violin as one or two female dancers/singers/percussionists/mascots dart and weave around the band like extras from a punk-rock version of Cirque du Soleil. One of the women is Chinese-Scottish. The bassist is from Ethiopia. The guitarist from Israel. The drummer from America. A second percussionist from Ecuador.
"It's transcontinental rock-and-roll," Hutz explained to British music-show host Jools Holland last year. "Everybody's dream in the band was to play rock-and-roll music, but we come from such different places that it doesn't come out the way Chuck Berry did. Which was [a] fantastic way, but I can't do that way. So we just do our best version."
Long a scruffy New York scene rumor, the band collaborated with a couple of Israelis — drummer Tamir Muskat and since-departed saxophonist Ori Kaplan (who now lead the excellent Balkan Beat Box) — on J.U.F., a fine but not exactly representative 2004 album.
It was with 2005's Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike that Gogol Bordello finally found their footing, matching their live rep on record for the first time. It's an album that somehow manages to live up to its title. In fact, that's exactly what it sounds like.
Gypsy Punks establishes who the band is and what they're about: It's a guided tour of a country of their own invention, including Lower East Side Russian bath houses, little punk-rock mafias forming in the streets, references to immigration hassles ("Upon arriving to the melting pot/I get penciled in as a goddamn white") and Old World custom ("In the old times it was not a crime!").
"I came to New York to start a gypsy punk revolt," Hutz announces. "Be it punk, hip-hop/Be it a reggae sound/It is all connected through the gypsy part of town," the band declares, asserting mongrelization as the essence of rock-and-roll. Their statement of principles: "Think Locally, Fuck Globally."
But if Gypsy Punks was about self-definition, the following Super Taranta! is the band's testament. A sharply written, perfectly sequenced album, it's a program for mass liberation in the form of an hour-long folk-punk record.
Hutz opens on a leap of faith: "There were never any good old days/They are today/They are tomorrow/It's a stupid thing we say/Cursing tomorrow with sorrow," he spits on "Ultimate," kicking his adopted country's then(?)-collective sense of dread square in the teeth.
The opening pairing of "Ultimate" and the lead single "Wanderlust King" (in which Hutz travels the world "hunting and gathering first-hand information/Challenging definitions of sin") is an untoppable intro, after which the band settles into a musically and philosophically consistent groove before rising up for a nearly as thrilling conclusion.
The penultimate pairing of "Your Country" and "American Wedding" situates the band's battery of immigrant songs in the context of their adopted home. "Your Country" isn't anti-American (it doesn't actually specify the "country" in question, the implication being that all apply) as much as anti-patriotic in a general sense, with Hutz and his songbird sidekicks all but taunting the listener: "Your country raised you/Your country fed you/And just like any other country, it will break you/On front line send you." Meanwhile, "American Wedding" expresses general disgust with the titular event because the alcohol runs out and the party ends by 1 a.m. "I understand the culture's of a different kind/But here word 'celebration' just doesn't come to mind!" Hutz wails.
Much like Booker T. & the MGs at a different point in time, the band's makeup is its own message. The connection they care about is "tribal" — by which they mean of the spirit — rather than national. "We're gonna turn frustration into inspiration ... such is the method of tribal connection," they promise.
The band's most recent album, 2010's Trans-Continental Hustle, falls short of Gypsy Punks and Super Taranta! in terms of energy and songwriting — peaks that high don't usually last long — but it purposefully expands the band's platform. Influenced by Hutz's move to Brazil, the album incorporates more South American influences, with Latin titles such as "My Companjera" and "Uma Menina" among the album's liveliest cuts and "Immigraniada (We Comin' Rougher)" supplying the band with a new anthem.
Gogol Bordello's version of rock-and-roll is immigrant music — stateless yet still rooted. It's a movable feast of sound and spirit that asserts that home isn't a place but something you carry around with you, and this message is conveyed with raucous wit, rootsy party music, and a magnanimous spirit. With culture clash, immigration strife, and global economics spinning our world around, this is a band — maybe the band — for our time.