Mustached and musically manic, Man Man murder at the Varsity

Gruff P.A. rockers draw in their loyal fan base, sell out venue

The bizarre tribal ritual, blood orgy, demented carnival that is Man Man thundered into The Varsity Theater last week. The Philadelphia quintet is in the midst of a massive tour in support of their much-hyped new release “Rabbit Habits,” that’ll have them zigzagging across the country well into September. As for last week’s stint, the band didn’t disappoint and delivered the frantic vaudeville-punk show they’ve become notorious for. On a night when equally buzzed about Hot Chip was playing a short distance away at First Avenue, the sellout show was quite an accomplishment.

Man Man at a Glance »

Hometown: Philadelphia

– Honus Honus (Keys, Lead Vocals)
– Pow Pow (Drums, Vocals)
– Sergei Sogay (Various, Vocals)
– Chang Wang (Various, Vocals)
– Cougar (Various, Vocals) Releases:
“The Man In a Blue Turban With a Face” (2004) – Rough around the edges, but the rare sort of debut record that forges a sonic identity right off the bat.
– “Six Demon Bag” (2006) – Breakthrough record. Poppier and slicker production than their debut, this hilarious, idiosyncratic and emotional album found itself at #20 on Pitchfork Media’s “Best of ’06” list.
“Rabbit Habits” (2008) – The same brand of off kilter bizarre-o pop as previous records, but the songs are tighter and lack the occasional lengthy instrumental tangents of previous records. Accessible to the point of possible (certain?) mainstream success.

Expensive festival they can be seen at: Coachella (Saturday April 26)

In keeping with the critical darling/band-of-the-moment theme, Brooklyn indie-psychers Yeasayer opened with their impassioned brand of experimental rock. While they can’t be faulted for effort, their set left much to be desired. The band’s excessive use of vocal effects didn’t translate well through The Varsity’s PA, and as a result came off as abrasive and factored too high into the mix. The band didn’t appear to be on the same page, but the moments where they did click were powerful. Although the live show didn’t impress, their curious melding of prog and indie is suited perfectly for studio recordings. Certainly a potential filled band with a promising future.

As popular as they may be, Yeasayer pointed out the real draw of the night when they mentioned a number of concert-goers sporting Man Man’s trademark war-paint and feathers getup. And sure enough, the well-served and raucous Varsity crowd went crazy the moment Man Man took their places on stage and tore into the deranged circus that is their live show.

Attendees of any Man Man show can expect certain things:

1. The band will be dressed in their standard issue white shirt/ white pant combo.

2. The members will be sporting Native American war-paint and frequently are adorned with feathers, headbands and facial hair.

3. The stage is a hodgepodge pile of toys, trinkets and makeshift percussion (i.e. pots and pans). The lead singer (Honus Honus) and the drummer (Pow Wow) are situated facing one another and are flanked by the rest of the band behind them.

The most apparent thing about Man Man’s show is their manic energy. Even though he’s atop a stool in front of his vintage Rhodes piano, frontman Honus Honus flairs, falls and flops about the stage with impossible enthusiasm. The band is almost violent with their instruments as they punish, stand on, pound them and then toss them aside. As for the instruments themselves, besides Honus Honus’s piano and Pow Wow’s drum set, there’s a rotating cast of horns, xylophones, basses, guitars, flutes, melodicas and slide whistles.

Their reckless execution, though, is anything but. Even the tiniest, and seemingly arbitrary, noises from their recorded songs are precisely replicated on stage. Through all the gruff barks, high-pitched squeals and frantic playing, the songs remain true to the way they’re written. Last week, those songs were played back-to-back without as much as a “Thanks” in between. In interviews, the band explains this set-method by saying that taking breaks to make a lame joke or witty “Freebird!!!” response detracts from the show and wrecks the mood. And with Man Man, mood is essential. Their live show feels more like an acid-ridden pirate karaoke bar than an indie rock show.

Minneapolis lapped up that Man Man vibe last Thursday. The crowd was a cohesive, churning mass that slam-danced, surfed and chanted along with the band that was leading a revival as much as playing a show. The band gets a lot of Frank Zappa/ Tom Waits/ Captain Beefheart comparisons, but until a now senior Waits (or deceased Zappa) writhes on the floor, barks into his mic while standing atop a stool, and tops it off by playing five kazoos at once, Man Man’s show will be a bigger spectacle and a more entertaining draw.