Controlled Chaos: Man Man at the Blue Lamp

Never had I ever listened to Man Man before I stepped into the Blue Lamp the Friday they were playing, which is something I don’t do for shows in Sacramento that cost more than 5 dollars. But I had found the band during a night spent trolling about on Wikipedia looking up the bands listed on the slip handed to me post-TMBG show and the description was promising. A band that dresses up in war paint and doesn’t take breaks during the set sounded worth it to me, so I put it on my concert calendar. Lo and behold, the next day dear sweet Stickie sent out an e-mail informing me that they were “highly recommended.” Chalk another one on the board for Man Man.

Good enough for me, but not so much for the four friends I dragged along with me who aren’t really concertgoers and instead of finding new bands themselves rely on people who do things like, say, read and write music reviews. They kept asking me what Man Man sounded like as we stood in back of the venue during the yawn inducing moans of opening act Sleeping States and when I couldn’t say, they asked people around us bringing back answers like “it’s sorta rockabilly” (wrong) until Stickie chimed in with “carnival Tom Waits.” Which is a decent description, but a tad limiting. You can hear a distinctly Waitsian growl in some of their songs and the keyboard loops on “Feathers” brings to mind freak shows and funhouse mirrors. However. Listening to Six Demon Bag, their second album, you hear a lot more than that. “Engrish Bwudd” bandies with a muted Dixieland trumpet. “Banana Ghost” features an infectious hook that sounds like it could come out of Eastern Europe. Other songs that are drum heavy, or more drum heavy than others, rather, can only be described as tribal. It’s a tough call to describe them and until a suitable rock sub-genre is named (“punk-wop” doesn’t count, Wikipedia, if you don’t have an entry for it) then the way that I’ll describe Man Man will be vaudevillian. That doesn’t describe their genre, of course, but it describes their show in all its wild yet amazingly controlled glory.

True to what I’ve read, all of them were bedecked in white with war paint splashed across their cheeks and noses. And they didn’t take breaks. But those words fail to fully describe what that means. A Man Man show, it turns out, is a furious collection of motley dudes playing an even more motley set of instruments. It’s loud and driving and everybody gets a drumstick so they can hit various objects on stage. In the case of keyboardist Honus Honus, that meant anything he could reach within the area of his flailing arms. Other times he was swinging the microphone around by the cord, climbing on the amps or engaging in the type of Indian war dance that would make Crazy Horse go on the warpath. Around him, band members Pow Pow, Sergei Sovay, Chang Wang and “Cougar” Borg worked through a menagerie of instruments during each song inserted themselves so precisely you could throw them in a box and call them Legos. That’s the key to their show. Despite how much they scream, how much stuff they hit and how ragged they appear, everything they do is fine tuned and rehearsed, plumped up for your entertainment with little room for mistakes. It’s about letting the audience have a good time. Pow Pow beckoned us closer as the show started.

Based on repeated listening to Six Demon Bag after the fact, Man Man live doesn’t differ much from Man Man on CD, but for once that didn’t turn out to be a problem. They played with a confidence and energy that I’ve seen in few other bands. To keep the tempo going, they steered away from slower songs like “Van Helsing’s Boombox.” “Feathers” was early, the opening chant sung by the whole band, Sergei Sovay’s eyes wide and rolling above his full ‘n’ thick beard. Otherwise, I couldn’t say what they played. All the songs bled together, held in check by Honus Honus and Pow Pow positioned front and center. At the end of it, they all jumped offstage and headed outside except for Sovay who sat down quietly in his little corner as we stomped and cheered for an encore. After a moment he looked up and picked up his bass as if to say “what, this?” before launching into a throbbing bass line that brought the rest of the band back onstage for one last song. After that, they were done and no, we weren’t allowed one more. As they said when they went offstage again, that was an encore. A pity, but they’d already bled on stage for over an hour. I went and grabbed a shirt and CD.

4 thoughts on “Controlled Chaos: Man Man at the Blue Lamp”

  1. I did like it, as a matter of fact. I didn’t state that directly in the piece, but I figured my protraying how dedicated the band was to making the show good time for the audience would have been enough. Quite a few bands sound good recorded only to have their shows make you kick yourself for not staying home and turning up the stereo to save a few bucks on the ticket. Man Man, on the other hand, put obvious effort into their show and, speaking as a frequent concertgoer, that’s something to appreciated.

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  2. I agree with your point. There are a number of bands that I only enjoy in there live albums and not the studio work.

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