- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Those “in” and “out” lists that take the pulse of popular culture at the beginning of the year typically swap hip-hop for rock, or jazz for electronic music. But any respectable list for 2006 has to include a new and quirky musical category: Ukrainian Gypsy Punk Rock.

It’s a genre developed and perfected by New York City’s Gogol Bordello, a wildly entertaining musical collective that visits the 9:30 Club on Saturday. Fronted with relentless abandon by Ukrainian-born songwriter-singer Eugene Hutz, the band’s performances are more akin to a cabaret showcase than a rock club gig.

The stage explodes with color, costumes, drama, chaos and motion. Hands clap madly and feet stomp to a distinctively Slavic beat spiked with punk’s blurred adrenaline as Mr. Hutz sings in English, Ukrainian, Italian and Spanish.

Songs like “Baro Foro” and “Musica Aggressia” whirl like the wildest of Old World wedding celebrations, where accordions, violins and guitars accompany joyous, inebriated dancing.

The band celebrates the exhilaration of motion and the freedom to find art, love and music in new territories. The name pays equal respect to the pleasures and passions of the bordello and to the craft of Ukrainian author Nikolai Gogol.

The group’s 2005 full-length release, “Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike,” revels in its melting pot of ethnicities and inspirations, which range from Ukrainian music to rock and reggae.

Gogol Bordello’s lyrics resonate on dual levels. In his role as the stranger in a new land, Mr. Hutz addresses the fears and hopes of all immigrants to America who’ve come before him. Born in Kiev in 1972, he left Ukraine in 1986 and arrived in the United States in 1993, after years of trundling among refugee camps in Poland, Italy, Austria and Hungary.

But his words also express a desire for individualism and rejection of watered-down, mainstream ideals, sentiments that are shared by anyone who feels oppressed by his job, home life or even his community’s prevailing political climate.

“I am a foreigner and I’m walking through new streets,” he growls with a rapper’s aggression on “Underdog World Strike.” Mr. Hutz continues: “But before I want to I see the same deeds / Inherited by few a power machine / That crushes you and strangles you right in your sleep.”

On “Immigrant Punk,” Mr. Hutz searches for the “little punk rock mafia” that shares his beliefs. He shouts, “Legalize me! Realize me!” during the chorus, a call for acceptance and a direct reference to the reggae influences that emerge on the album. He’s riffing on the common reggae chant to “legalize it” — the “it” being marijuana.

During live shows, Mr. Hutz’s between-song banter, delivered in clipped speech with lips smudged against the microphone, leads to memories of Joe Strummer, the late lead songwriter for punk heroes the Clash. As Gogol Bordello continues to tour and release records, the group will find a fan base among admirers of Mr. Strummer’s later works, which paired his rebel heart with globe-spanning beats.

And the band will benefit from a halo of positive publicity from Mr. Hutz’s big-screen moonlighting. Last year, he appeared as the co-lead in the film “Everything is Illuminated.” He portrayed Alex, a Ukrainian who loves America’s hip-hop culture and plays tour guide to straight-laced Jonathan (Elijah Wood of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy).

Variety magazine praised Mr. Hutz’s performance, particularly his knack for having “fun with Alex’s loose, crude attitude” and the way he “easily tosses off the delightful malapropisms that lace his dialogue.”

That “loose, crude attitude” fits Mr. Hutz’s perspective of Gogol Bordello’s musical triumphs, too.

“We appeal to the freaks of the world who are not in agreement with mass-market rebellion,” he told the music publication Alternative Press.

Gogol Bordello appears at the 9:30 Club as part of the “Unlimited Sunshine Tour.” The sold-out show delivers a bright mix of artists, including Cake, purveyors of quirky, independent-minded rock, and Tegan and Sara, Canadian sisters who are building a following for their folk/rock musings with constant touring.

• • •

Warehouse Next Door on Seventh Street Northwest, near the Washington Convention Center, hosts up-and-coming local and national acts. Criteria, out of Omaha, Neb., brings its prickly guitars and percussive crunch to the venue on Sunday.

“Prevent the World,” a track from Criteria’s second album, synthesizes the crucial conflict faced by touring musicians who play Warehouse Next Door and other area venues. Like singer Stephen Pedersen, they harbor dreams of stardom, but they’re forced to juggle rock ‘n’ roll fantasies with the reality of day jobs and paying the bills.

The ache is real when Mr. Pedersen sings, “I’m stuck in a basement world / Where even if I tried to make rock my living / It wouldn’t coincide.”

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