The pungent odor of beer and stagnant body odor permeates the air. The sound of clanging fire extinguishers, pots, pans and a variety of other miscellany reverberates from the stage and into the teeming, writhing crowd. The Union in Athens, Ohio is not the typical locale for the moderately visible band to play. An act of significant import usually plays the sterile, boxy stage at the Ohio University Baker Student Center. However, tonight, Man Man crowds its motley crew of white uniform-clad musicians onto a meager stage at a dive bar in a podunk college town in the middle of nowhere.
The anticipation before the show was palpable. Two opening acts got the night off and running: Athens' own cerebral indie-pop outfit, Men of Gentle Birth, as well as South Philly's the Extraordinaires, who describe their sound on their website by conjuring up images of Shaq slam dunking a b-ball. Both bands seemed a likely introduction to Man Man's general inexplicability, especially the Extraordinares with their bizarre onstage personas and affinity for animal- inspired toggery. Early in the night, rumors were flying about that the show's nearly hour long delay was caused by the boys of Men of Gentle Birth and their inability to finish their dinner on time. Whether or not that was the case, their dilly-dallying resulted in a very short opening set.
The Extraordinares, on the other hand, played a sprawling set including, among other things, carnival-esque folk ballads and a lackluster cover of "Maneater." The guitar-driven band often shouted at the crowd, spewing somewhat indistinguishable melodies. While their set was entertaining enough, it seemed to drag on, yielding one jangly tune after another.
Man Man descended upon the stage in a rather whimsical fashion, donning embellished hats and wielding bedazzled dream catchers in hand. War paint coated their faces. They sported their traditional costume of white t-shirts and trousers. In interviews, Man Man's members often regard this clothing staple as a way in which to pull the emphasis back to the music and performance element of the show. Indeed, this seemed to be the thematic idea of the night, seeing that the band didn't stop once to casually converse with the audience or take a break between songs. The irreverent energy was led by the group's eccentric front man, Ryan Kattner, a.k.a Honus Honus. His frenetic percussive clanging and unintelligible vocals mixed into a sort of symphonic cacophony that could only be matched by the sound of a Jack in the Box leading the chants of Amazonian tribesmen.
The only difficult task of the evening? Imagining an instrument or banging object that Man Man didn't utilize. There were flute interludes, jingling bells, and even an old-style slide whistle. Man Man's inventiveness didn't end there, either. While flailing about the stage, band members often kept time by smacking amplifiers or pounding on the walls. The icing on the proverbial cake--although I wouldn't have been surprised if one was used as an instrument--was the presentation of our old favorite, Weebles. Certainly, the round, musical toys wobbled, but they didn't fall down.
The inclusion of the band's most recognizable song, "Engrish Bwudd," off their 2006 release Six Demon Bag, sent the crowd into an even more audible and visible frenzy, as if their earlier musical craziness wasn't enough. The set focused mainly on the releases from Demon Bag but also included enough from their 2004 album The Man in a Blue Turban with a Face to appease those die-hard fans who loved them before all of you hipsters did. And as if this wasn't enough, Honus Honus broke his adamant stance on white clothing and suited up in a iridescent, sequined black top and matching headband. As if sensing the crowd's extreme discomfort with the escalating heat of huddled bodies, he then doused the audience with bottled water in a manner befitting a holy man cleansing his followers.
Surely no one embarks upon the experience of a Man Man show expecting to leave clean, dry or with their entire hearing capacity. The visceral stench, sweat and ringing of the ears is part of the band's enigmatic charm and lunacy. Reviewers, journalists or others who seek to categorize music may be tempted to liken Man Man's sound to everyone from Tom Waits to Animal Collective or any other artist who is vaguely experimental or who otherwise evades description. But there will be no pigeonholing of this band. Their most recognizable performative traits, of course, are their whirling, honky tonk melodies, energetic delivery and, of course, the Weebles.
[Photo: Mike Persico]