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Eugene Hutz isn’t afraid to wear his sympathies on his sleeve—literally. When I met up with the voluble, wiry, mustachioed Gogol Bordello frontman in late April, Hutz greeted me wearing a thin, military-cut jacket emblazoned with the names of some of his favorite bands: The Clash, System of a Down, Dub Trio, etc. This is typical Hutz—he never shies away from the grand gesture, the big statement, the earnest admiration of his musical heroes. At the same time, his sartorial sincerity is part of a larger, calculated effect. The rakish Cossack moustache, the striped French sailor’s shirt, the skinny black jeans, the black brothel creeper shoes and the fanboy jacket would look absurd on anybody else but it’s part of Hutz’s genius that he pulls them all together into his own, theatrical “Gypsy Punk” style—a style that helped birth an entirely new musical genre.
These days, New York is lousy with bands that combine aspects of gypsy, klezmer, Balkan and Eastern European music with western pop and alternative music. Inspired by everything from Roma and Balkan virtuosi like Taraf de Haidouks, Fanfare Ciocarlia, and Boban Markovic to Goran Bregovic’s frenetic soundtrack to Emir Kusturica’s 1995 film Underground, new bands have been popping up like mushrooms after a rainstorm since the beginning of the decade. Balkan Beat Box, Slavic Soul Party, Zagnut Orkestar, the Hungry March Band, Luminescent Orchestrii, Golem and others all crowd the New York alternative scene, with plenty of other like-minded groups spreading the word among hipsters from Seattle to Vladivostok. But Gogol Bordello got there first.
The group bum-rushed the scene in 1999, though they were already conceptualized and almost fully formed in Hutz’s fertile imagination even before he left his native Ukraine as a teenager in the mid-’90s. Fully fleshed out, Gogol Bordello quickly made a name for itself with a raucous residency at the now-legendary “Bulgarian Bar” (a.k.a.Mehanata) on the corner of Bowery and Canal Streets. Gogol Bordello’s shows there were almost impossible to describe—wild, exhilarating, cathartic, anarchic mashups of punk rock cabaret, Slavic soul and alcohol-fueled mayhem. Hutz performed like a man possessed, earning near-constant comparisons to Iggy Pop and other great rock and roll nihilists. His manic skits (often flanked by bombshell backup dancers), absurd costumes, and stage diving, rafter climbing, bass-drum-riding antics became the stuff of legend. Meanwhile, the boys in the band were gestating one of the most original cross-cultural hybrids to hit New York in a long time. Simply put, it was the best party in town.
Gogol Bordello somehow managed to capture all of this on its first album, Voi-La Intruder, in ’99. To be followed by the tongue-twisting Multi Kontra Kulti vs. Irony in 2002 (Hutz is fond of calling the first album a “sickle” and its sequel the “hammer.” No one is sure why). But their real breakthrough came with 2004’s Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike. Produced by indie-rock godhead/tastemaker Steve Albini, the album offered up such vintage GB provocations as “Think Locally, Fuck Globally” and “I Would Never Wanna Be Young Again.” This was followed by the odds-and-sods EP East Infection the same year.
But what really helped put the band over outside of New York was its relentless touring. Like the great punk acts of yore, from the Ramones to Black Flag, GB toured relentlessly, spreading their gypsy punk gospel from town to town, festival to festival, both in the US and abroad. Eventually, a whole cadre of like-mind