Gogol Bordello storms Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Plus: Plastic People of the Universe land to Rock 'n Roll
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SONIC REDUCER Sweet home Europa be it central, eastern, or so southerly that you're smack in the Amazon, shooting the rapids like Aguirre and grabbing inspiration from the jaguar guts of the jungle. Call the recent Balkan music invasion on virginal indie hearts and minds the stealth revenge of new, weird Old World sounds on arrogant Amerindie rockism just listen to the brainy, brassy blast of Beirut or the fiddle-borne shakedowns of A Hawk and a Hacksaw or the gypsy, or Romany, mess-arounds of Brass Menazeri I dare you not to jig. Yet the rip-roaring, marrow-slurping, living end of all fiddlin'-round roma punks are the longtime "Think Locally, Fuck Globally" champeens Gogol Bordello.
Larger-than-life Gogol vocalist Eugene Hütz adores the fact that Romany sounds are finding new audiences "It clicked for me one day," he says from New Orleans, "that gypsy music is going through exactly the revolution that reggae went through, from being a regional phenomenon to being a much larger music section in the store much bigger visibility because if you're not visible, you're fucked." But trust the man to set me straight on sloppy assumptions regarding that same music, especially regarding Gogol Bordello's next album, which was influenced by Hütz's move this year to Rio de Janeiro. Will the recording about which, Hütz promises, "people are going to shit in their pants when they hear it, because we're already shitting in our pants" give off a heady, flowery whiff of tropicália, and sound like the Pogues and Os Mutantes in steel-cage match?
"Forget that!" he retorts. "It's like being in Spain and saying there's only flamenco, or there's nothing in Eastern Europe except polka. It's what every tourist knows." Hütz was initially lured to Brazil by a lady, but he says, "the next thing I knew there was a huge gypsy community to discover. Next thing I knew I was traveling through Brazil with Manu Chao and seeing the other side of it, and the next thing I knew I was calling my mom to send all my shit over.
"I love New York City and I always will," Hütz continues. "It gave me everything, gave me understanding and initial recognition. But I feel like the road is still calling me. It ain't no time to settle."
The allure of unexplored vistas could go a little way in explaining the appeal of Gogol and its brethren to New Worlders like ourselves. What fan girl or boy isn't tempted to have their blasé, boring butt kicked by the very unironic, passionate Gogol Bordello not for nothing is the band's 2002 album titled Multi Kontra Culti vs. Irony (Rubric) which takes nothing for granted, and while it's at it, takes no prisoners.
PLASTIC FANTASTIC Czech Republic underground OGs Plastic People of the Universe, who perform with promising Budapest band Little Cow this week in San Francisco at Slim's, are all too familiar with incarceration. The group will also make a Q&A stop at the American Conservatory Theatre production of Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll, a semi-bon mot to the band who were forbidden to perform, whose fans were beaten, and members were eventually imprisoned by the Czech government in the '70s for their dark, "antisocial," Velvet Underground- and Frank Zappainspired art-rock psychedelia.
Guitarist Joe Karafiát tells me by cellie, as the many in the seven-piece snoozed their way to Burlington, Vt., that Plastic People of the Universe didn't set out to be activists or the initial inspiration for the human rights petition Charter 77 (which landed Václav Havel in jail) much like they didn't set out to be such diehard Zappa or Velvets heads. "If we didn't understand what [those bands] were saying," Karafiát says, "we kind of felt what those guys were talking about."
PPU's untamed shenanigans led to, for example, the jailing of freejazz sax player Vratislav Brabenec for a year. As he states via translator by e-mail, "Most of our adventures were crazy, as you can imagine. After the arrests in 1977, most of our concerts were suicidal. We didn't know if the secret police would come and kill us or put us back in jail. But we had a lot of support from [future President] Havel and the underground culture. Trying to record albums in Havel's barn under our situation no real power source, police lurking around it was all an adventure." Eventually, Brabenec was forced to flee to Canada.
It's remarkable to think that PPU and their compelling skronk still persists, years after the Czechoslovakian government tried to grind them down and despite their continued underground status in their homeland. "We are on the edge," says the guitarist with a chortle. "Most Czechs are consumers. They consume TV, McDonald's, and there's just small group of people looking for something different." Those unusual suspects could find it at the slew of PPU sets before and after Rock 'n' Roll performances in the Czech Republic.
But perhaps that's another reason we're feeling that Old World sound: maybe we're looking for the type of resilience integral to powerful, affecting art forged during tough times. With those survival skills, slipping onto the bill of bluegrass and country at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 8 is a cinch. "Speed metal bills, jazz bills, traditional Egyptian music bills," Hütz says. "We're entirely inappropriate everywhere!"
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass
Sun/5, 4:15 p.m., free
Star Stage, Speedway Meadow
Golden Gate Park, SF
Also benefit for Muttville
Sun/5, 9 p.m., $30
333 11th St., SF
PLASTIC PEOPLE OF THE UNIVERSE
Reception and CD signing Oct. 9, 7 p.m., free admission for Slim's ticket holders and past and future holders of Rock 'n' Roll tickets
American Conservatory Theater
405 Geary, SF
Performance Oct. 9, 9 p.m., $15$20, Slim's