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Last Friday, my friend from college took me to a grungy warehouse – I think it was still in the Dinkytown (actual name of an actual place) neighborhood where they live, but my Minneapolis geography is not adequate enough to say definitively – where people rode to up to the show on bikes taller than I am. My friends from college are playing in a band there for the summer. They live in a cozy apartment cramped by the eight people who share it. My friends work as line cooks and record store clerks. They have a certain predilection towards wearing dark clothes with faded colors from thrift stores, smoking Marlboro Red cigarettes and rocking out to punk music.
Anyways, inside the warehouse, I bought two $2 cans of Hamm’s and listened as punk was blended with noise rock, country, sludge metal and new wave sounds. Four bands played, and I never saw more than a quarter of the people at the venue walk in to watch the show. They just stood outside dressed in leather, smoking away at cigarettes and catching up and swapping wild stories with the many travel punks, old hardcore punks, arts kids and band members who loitered in the industrial yard out front. They were so punk, they wouldn't pay for a show or couldn't be bothered to.
See, I have always enjoyed punk music. It’s loud, aggressive and stirs up some inner desire to be young, reckless and slightly stupid. I myself have never been able to embrace the "Live Fast, Die Young" mantra that punk music likes to espouse. That seems too tragic and dramatic for my tastes, but that’s beside the point. "Lovely" may not be the right word to describe the black clothes and angst, but I find the music and the atmosphere lovely.
And so, as I sat down to watch the Balkun Brothers open, I couldn’t help but think that the Gogol Bordello concert tonight brings into odd contrast the punk scene in Milwaukee. Against the backdrop of the BMO Harris Stage, with the stage flanked by large fluorescent signs reading "BMO Harris Bank," there was something decidedly not punk about the Summerfest atmosphere.
I have mostly seen jam bands, oldies, hard rock or indie bands at Summerfest. But Gogol Bordello is built on a distinctly gypsy punk platform. It gives off the vibe of transients stopping in just for the fun of playing a show. Their message is raunchy yet honest and poetic. The band draws heavily from immigrant musicians: current and former members from across the former U.S.S.R., Ethiopia and Ecuador to name a few countries. All this leads to the basis of their music. "Immigrant Punk" is the name of one of their songs; that has to suggest some deep familiarity with both the immigrant experience and punk culture, right?
But Summerfest doesn’t really seem like a solidly punk venue, and the question that kept gnawing at the back of my mind was this: Could Gogol Bordello really overcome this high-budget stage with blue plastic chairs and bleachers to sit in? Could it still deliver that same angry music that I love?
The performance began as Eugene Hütz – the skinny, mustachioed, almost hippie-looking legend himself – took the stage, followed shortly by a bassist, a guitarist, two drummers, an accordionist and a fiddler. They launched into "Illumination" with no hesitation, but it felt like a slow start. Still skeptical about the authenticity of the show, I stood in the back waiting to see how the concert would develop.
By "Not A Crime," however, the crowd was definitely being pulled into the music, and shortly after, with "My Companjera," everyone was thoroughly engaged, slightly pushy and quite worked up. And I think close to every audience member nearly blew a vocal cord during "Start Wearing Purple." Have you ever seen an accordion solo and a fiddle solo, back to back? Nearly lost myself when it happened. I can now say that I have seen such an occurrence, and I am a better person for it.
At one point, the backup visuals – videos of klezmer bands, jazz halls and dancers – cut out, leaving only the top bar of a Mac computer on the screen. For some reason it seemed oddly intentional, given that the only words that could be clearly seen were "Finder" on one side and "Help" on the other.
Towards the end of the show, I took a good look around at the people in the Summerfest crowd. Despite the venue, the crowd made it feel homey. There were the familiar jean jackets with band patches on the back; there were man-buns and head-banging hairdos; there were people with hands in the air, open-mouth, screaming lyrics incoherently and bumping the people next to them. It definitely had all the classic signs of a good punk show.
So to answer my own question: Yes, of course Gogol Bordello can put on a badass punk show at the BMO Harris Pavilion. And best of all, Gogol Bordello seemed to love the energy Milwaukee put out. I know I did.
Not A Crime
My Gypsy Auto Pilot
The Other Side Of Rainbow
Dig Deep Enough
Last One Goes the Hope
Start Wearing Purple