20 Years of a Legendary Venue and a Legendary New York Punk Band
Is punk nostalgia an oxymoron? Or is a band’s refusal to calm down and be quiet something we should all aspire to? Gogol Bordello’s latest album, Seekers and Finders – streaming at Spotify – doesn’t pose those questions, but it offers a mighty, roaring answer.
Twenty years ago, the self-described gypsy punks – a term which ironically has become outdated – were a cult band playing midsize venues across the country. Since the band hadn’t yet embarked on their seemingly endless, global stadium tour, frontman Eugene Hutz frequently spun vinyl on Friday nights at Mehanata, the Bulgarian bar that was then located in a second-floor space at the corner of Canal and Broadway.
Those nights were insane – not just because of Hutz, or because it was the best dance party in town, but because in the early internet era, it was pretty much the only place in New York where you could hear Balkan turbo-folk music, at least playing over a good PA. Who would have thought that two decades later, Mehanata would still be in business – relocated to the Lower East Side – and that Gogol Bordello would still be together, let alone still vital?
The band don’t have any New York gigs coming up – their most recent was at a hideously overpriced corporate venue at the far fringes of Williamsburg – but Hutz is playing a very rare acoustic gig to celebrate Mehanata’s 20th anniversary on Feb 13. Doors are at 6, the party goes all night, Hutz is theoretically headlining – in a duo set with his Gogol Bordello bandmate Sergey Ryabtsev. Also on the bill are klezmer trumpeter Frank London with percussionist Deep Singh, Bulgarian sax titan Yuri Yunakov, accordion wizard Yuri Lemeshev and oudist Avram Pengas; other special guests are promised. Cover is $20; the first 200 through the door get a free Mehanata 20th anniversary t-shirt.
What does the new album sound like – in case you haven’t heard it? It’s a throwback to the2005 classic Gypsy Punks, arguably Gogol Bordello’s definitive statement (even though the word “gypsy” now has a connotation akin to “colored” – we are all better off saying “Romany”). The opening track, We Did It All comes across as a stomping Balkan brass number transposed to the electric guitars of Hutz and Boris Pelekh, with a characteristically surreal Hutz stream-of-consciousness lyrical interlude before the band explodes again.
Walking on the Burning Coals is a classic, metaphorical GB anthem spiced with brass, Sergey Ryabtsev’s violin and Pasha Newmer’s accordion over the guitar fury and the surprisingly slinky rhythm section: bassist Thomas Gobena and Alfredo Ortiz.
Break Into Your Higher Self is closer to 90s Warped Tour punk, with a typical Hutz exhortation to get with the revolutionary program. Harmony singer Vanessa Walters duets with Hutz on the singalong title track, followed by Familia Bonfireball and its unexpected spaghetti western tinges. Ryabtsev’s slithery violin pans the mix as it winds out.
Clearvoyance has a sotto-vocce bounce: “It’s like running from my prison of your mind,” resolutely solitary Hutz insists. Then the band picks up the pace with the album’s best track, the magnificently scorching, chromatically charigng Saboteur Blues. They keep the energy at redline with Love Gangsters, which begins as reggae tune as the Clash would have done it and builds from there. If I Ever Get Home Before Dark follows the same blueprint but more quietly.
Pedro Erazo-Segovia’s trippy, echoing charango kicks off You Know Who We Are before the big guitars kick in. The album ends with Still That Way, the band taking a stab at a big, dramatic Celtic ballad. After all these years, Gogol Bordello haven’t lost sight of a message that’s more relevant than ever: it’s never too late to party for our right to fight.