Even after releasing an album as mellow and dark as Life Fantastic, there was no chance that a band like Man Man would put on anything less than a stellar, chaotic, frenetic live show, much as they have done since 2004. There were some changes in their setup to be sure, but the Philadelphia five-piece’s stop in Chicago held much of the same fervor their shows always have. Their ability to dive between genres, dramatic flair, and general oddness were again on full display, and the crowd ate up every second of it.
Openers Shilpa Ray & Her Happy Hookers had their own sense of fury, though, tearing through their set with a growl. Ray stands front and center, howling and crooning like King Khan, all while playing the harmonium (a hand-pumped reed organ). The vaguely bluesy sound of the instrument combines with the tight funk of the Hookers, resulting in a readily danceable sound that got the big room moving. Ray, formerly the vocalist for Beat the Devil, has an incomparable wail on songs like the rabid “Liquidation Sale” but can turn on the charm as well: “Chicago… the clean New York”. While that comment received plenty of applause, her addition that “you guys had your heyday… with the Tortoise, the Shellac, the Sea and Cake…” seemed to get a few headscratches from younger audience members. Fortunately, that confusion was soon tossed off in favor of more furious dancing.
Photo by Martin Hamedani
After a brief wait, Man Man vocalist Honus Honus and bandmates came out to set up their ever-growing stage display. The change in lineup (gone are bassist Sergei Sogay and guitarist/trumpeter Critter Crat, in are returning keyboardist Turkey Moth and guitarist/trumpeter Jefferson) also brought in an extra vibraphone to pair with the marimba, some fancy rope lights, a video screen constantly looping footage of Moth’s face, and a giant diamond-shaped keyboard stand with a blue-green light that beat like a Mac product. Also, the group wore black shirts with their white shorts (perhaps to go along with their new dark material).
Without a moment of chit-chat, Honus kicked into the down-tempo keys of Six Demon Bag gem “Feathers”, the band and crowd singing as one about how “the only life that you have you give away.” The melancholy was quickly abated with Pow Pow’s furious drums and the rollicking keyboards of “Hurly/Burly”. The audience’s gentle swaying had become a stage rush, hands reached up, feet danced along. A large contingent with war paint and glowsticks screamed and hollered along with Honus as he prowled the front of the stage.
The band then launched into “Piranhas Club” off of their new disc, the song sounding a little wilder than on the album. Multi-instrumentalist wildman Chang Wang, Moth, and Jefferson all provided high-pitched harmonies, and Pow Pow knocked off a rapid beat. After a pair of Rabbit Habit standouts, Honus and Pow Pow charged headlong into the best live Life Fantastic track, “Dark Arts”. The vibes got a little punchier, and despite working without a bassist, the low end of the spectrum thumped. The sinister howls of “Mr. Dagger meet Mr. Back!” spread through the room as the center of the room pulsed.
“Haute Tropique” emerged as a new theatrical setpiece, Moth taking over Honus’s Rhodes while the singer put on a long, black jacket and stepped up to the microphone. As he cycled through the verses about a picky cannibal, he donned a knit cap, a pair of big glasses, and motorcycle goggles and blew a handful of red feathers out over the crowd (though an industrial fan blew most of it back to the other musicians). He wasn’t the only one losing his mind.
Longtime fans were equally catered to by the setlist, which also featured old favorites “10 Lb. Moustache”, “Sarspirilla” (with a strange hand-pedaled bike wheel clacker instrument), and “White Rice, Brown Heart” (all from 2004′s The Man in a Blue Turban with a Face), on the last of which Chang Wang screamed and mugged the response lines like a caged animal. Softer tracks like “Doo Right” and “Van Helsing Boombox” (which closed the encore) sounded just as spot-on as the crazy “The Ballad of Butter Beans” (with Honus in a dress), and the dismal “Shameless” (which, ironically, began as a crowd surfer found his way onstage and cheered himself on).
Photo by Martin Hamedani
The long encore found Shilpa Ray back onstage to sing harmonies for “Life Fantastic” and dance in the background for “Engrish Bwudd”, while “Spider Cider” and “Oh, La Brea” crackled with joy. Despite all the changes, they are at heart the same band, and if anything proves that, it’s their always entertaining live show. The old hits sounded as good as they ever have, and the new songs sound better than expected. Throughout the night, Honus felt like the wildest cat in the asylum putting together some entertainment for his fellow inmates, and most people in the cramped Metro were more than happy to get crazy.
Mister Jung Stuffed
10 Lb. Moustache
Easy Eats (or Doctor Galapagos)
The Ballad of Butterbeans
White Rice, Brown Heart
Oh, La Brea
Van Helsing Boombox