by Emily Savage
On a perfectly clear Wednesday night in downtown Ventura, a merry band of globe-trotting self-described gypsy punks made its way to the spacious Majestic Ventura Theater stage. Together, those theatrical, international musicians make up perhaps the world’s best-known “gypsy punk” act, Gogol Bordello, formed in the late 1990s in New York and fronted by enigmatic Ukrainian-born wildman Eugene Hütz.
The band was there to perform its legendary 2005 album, Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike, which Hütz noted had never been played on its first run in Ventura, so we the audience were “making up for lost time.” If you’ve ever seen a crowd eagerly awaiting the live performance of a beloved decade-old album, you’d understand the sheer insanity and excitement of anticipation swelling in the theater before the show, especially if that noted record is a lively, frenetic masterpiece, which it is.
The packed house hooted and hollered, audience members stomping their collective feet and swinging their arms at the end of every warm-up song while waiting for the band to appear. The eclectic crowd of punks and acrobats, Burning Man enthusiasts and young beachy working stiffs seemed in jovial spirits, perhaps even some a bit too spirited. At least one intoxicated concert-goer was dragged from the pit before the show even started.
But then it began with a bang. Hütz could be heard singing offstage from behind the curtains, and the crowd absolutely roared. Band members began quickly filing across stage, and two acrobatic dancer-percussionists literally tumbled toward the center wearing baseball caps and Spandex-looking tights (later whipping off hats to reveal head wraps and changing into lacy long-sleeved garments) and took turns screaming during breakdowns of a feverish “I Would Never Wanna Be Young Again,” while long-haired Hütz jumped from one side of the stage to the other in a loosely buttoned shirt he’d soon rip off.
Hütz’s thick Eastern European accent and massive stage presence, despite his diminutive shirtless figure, demanded probably the most attention of all, even with other colorful movement happening on stage at all times. Your eyes never quite knew where to land, and so you were forced to dart back and forth across the stage throughout the show — something spectacular was happening over there! Now, over there!
While Hütz was often the star of the show, Soviet-born electric violinist Sergey Ryabtsev (a classically trained Russan folk fiddler), Ecuadorian percussionist Pedro Erazo, Ethiopian bassist Thomas Gobena, and Belarus-born accordionist Pasha Newmer followed closely behind in charisma and sheer theatrics.
The concert truly was a party, living up to Gogol Bordello’s long-standing reputation. Everyone on stage was in constant motion, sometimes synchronized, with arms outstretched, exaggeratedly hitting beats, occasionally theatrically chugging wine from the bottle, and once throwing a big bouquet of flowers into the cheering crowd.
Ska-influenced global jam “Immigrant Punk” felt prophetic for our current state of politics (more on that later). This riotously creative and diverse crew of musicians who’ve come together from around the world, with a leader who came to the U.S. as a political refugee in the 1990s, sang about the conflicting life of an immigrant, including the refrain, “Legalize me, realize me!”
Despite heady conversations, you could tell this crew loved playing music and making its own party wherever it performed anywhere across the globe. Even in this relatively large venue, the bond still felt intimate. You could picture them all performing around a bonfire and bringing the same level of energy.
Songs like slower-churning “12 Illumination” echoed heavily throughout the theater, punctuated by huge pounding drumbeats that felt like your own heartbeat thumping. The aforementioned dancing percussionists brought out washboards during “Dogs Were Barking.”
Favorites, including “Think Locally, F**k Globally” and “Start Wearing Purple” (which could easily get the Hava Nagila treatment at Jewish weddings), got everyone worked up into an even thicker frenzy. Before launching into the former, Hütz paused to address the crowd: “In this political climate, it is important to keep your head straight!” He then leapt across stage yet again and the party continued.