Man Man, Shilpa Ray & Her Happy Hookers Sons of Hermann Hall May 6, 2011
Better Than: Wearing sunglasses at night.
One of the images that comes to mind when I hear the musical chaos known as Man Man, is the clown scene in the Disney movie Dumbo.
Live performances only reinforce that image. With a stage adorned with musical instruments real and imagined, the band typically includes war paint, wigs and some form of ad hoc uniform in its appearance. But underlying this cartoonish mayhem is musicianship that is sharp as a razor, and songs with a lyrical richness that confounds their gypsy-meets-New Orleans funk-meets-drunk sailor sing-alongs. And they have developed an audience that enthusiastically embraces their brand of a good time.
And so it was at Friday's performance before a diverse audience of 200 plus rabble-rousers at Sons of Hermann Hall.
Touring behind the imminent release of their forthcoming album Life Fantastic, the band held a few surprises up their sleeves. The stage took equal measures of Pee Wee's Playhouse and a torch singer's starry night backdrop. As in the past, pianist/vocalist Honus Honus (Ryan Kattner) was set up against the drum kit of Pow Pow (Chris Powell). And the songs presented from Life Fantastic might be considered a new level of sobriety. But these were relatively low impact compared to the one dealing with stage lighting. Perhaps to maximize the effect of the starry backdrop, the band played pretty much in the dark.
The show opened a bit shanty-like with "Rabbit Habits," with many in the adoring audience singing and gestulating with the band. The performance that unfolded proved to be as tight as ever, with singer Honus Honus in particularly fine vocal form. The set pulled from the band's rich catalog, with the new tracks very well received. Highlights for the audience were "The Ballad of Butterbean" (although the marimba solo was a little muted), and "Top Drawer." Audience participation was full on. As the band left the stage after the hour-long set, the audience calling for more oddly morphed into a chant of "USA USA". The band returned for an encore that left happy performers and audience equally drenched in sweat.
Opening the show was Brooklyn's Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers. Shilpa is a tiny firecracker of a vocalist, with lungs that seem to far surpass her stature. Torturing a harmonium like I've never seen (under a well-lit stage), Shilpa sang a bluesy rock that left me with the impossible impression of a combined Janis Joplin and Hope Sandovol. The band's performance got one of the most enthusiastic receptions I've seen for an opener in some time.
Critics Notebook Personal bias: I love Man Man and their deceptively sophisticated music. But a major joy of their live performance for me has always been watching Honus Honus and Pow Pow playing with (and against) each other. The diminished lighting really robbed the audience of that unique joy.\
Random Note: If he keeps up with his give-all performance style, Honus Honus may prove to be his generation's Tom Waits, both in terms of shredded vocal chords and ability with the clever turn of a phrase.
By The Way: As the Sons of Hermann Hall closes in on its centennial anniversary, it was great to see this band on that venerated stage. This venue was stark contrast to the shit hole (the band's choice of words AND mine) on Elm Street they played in last time.