Man, I wish Eugene Hutz would loosen up a little bit. With a little more charisma, he could really go places.
I'm kidding, of course. The Burlington expat and the leader of globetrotting gypsy punks Gogol Bordello has done pretty well for himself since leaving the Queen City a decade ago to seek his fame and fortune in New York City — he now lives in Brazil. He's appeared in films such as Everything Is Iluminated and Filth & Wisdom. He's canoodled with Madonna. He's become the poster child for music that cross-pollinates western rock and punk with Eastern European influences. Simply put, Hutz has become a star. While his considerable talent is certainly key to his success, his sheer force of personality — namely, his irresistible, devilish charm — has been equally important in his transformation from teenaged Chernobyl refugee to global sensation.
Those of us who have been around Burlington long enough to remember his 1990s punk band, the Fags, have always known Eugene is special. Last night, Burlington was treated to an intimate glimpse of just how enigmatic and compelling a performer he is: Hutz and a handful of his Gogol bandmates dropped by the Occupy Burlington camp for an impromptu — if not exactly "secret" — show at, or rather in, the fountain at City Hall Park.
Rumors of the performance began flying yesterday afternoon, following a post on the Burlington Free Press website claiming the band would appear at the park at 8 p.m. However, the band officially denied any such performance via their Twitter feed several times, dismissing media reports about the show as rumor. (Note: The key word there is "officially.")
The denizens of Facebook were not fooled. Numerous posts of varying degrees of accuracy/heresay began sprouting up throughout the afternoon and into the evening. The rumor mill came to a head when a Facebook event invite appeared, claiming the band would drop by the park around 10 p.m. It even included what seemed to be a text message from Hutz himself, confirming the band would indeed play a short set that night. It was on. Maybe.
By 9 p.m. a couple hundred anxious fans had joined the ranks of Occupy Burlington, huddled around the founatain in a semi-circle as the Wee Folkestra played a short set. They were followed by Burlington Afro-pop outfit the Move It Move It, who provided a decent diversion for the swelling — and increasingly skeptical — crowd. (I admit, I was among the skeptics. I had even thought of a headline, should Eugene not show: "Waiting for Go … D'oh!")
By 10 p.m. the crowd had more than doubled in size, completely surrounding the fountain, in some places, nine or ten rows deep. By the chess tables, activists stood on railings and led the masses in lively — if at times eerily cultish — call-and-response chants, from "We are the 99%" to far more complicated exhortations of political dissatisfaction and populist fervor. But still, no Gogol Bordello.
At 10:30, a few folks began peeling off from the crowd as skepticism morphed into outright disbelief. However, despite the defections of nonbelievers, the ranks continued to swell as more curious fans wandered over. By 10:45 p.m., the throng surrounding the fountain had grown so thick that every cheer arising from the center of the fray caused those on the periphery to pause and crane their necks to see if the band had actually shown up. When a small group of acoustic guitars and hand drums resumed Bob Marley covers, eyes rolled and people went back to chatting, smoking cigarettes or sipping barely concealed PBRs.
Then, as if out of the ether, Hutz appeared atop the fountain, clad in a tan jacket, a fedora and what appeared to be red boxing shorts over green velvety pants. (Eugene Hutz has never lacked for style.) The crowd, now numbering several hundred, erupted. And the show was on.
Armed only with an acoustic guitar and backed by hand drums and tambourine, Hutz thrilled. It hardly mattered that you couldn't really hear him unless you were standing within 15 feet. The crowd lustily sang along to nearly every word during his five-song set. And there was Eugene, working the masses into a lather from his precarious perch like some demented pied piper. By the time he closed his set with "Start Wearing Purple," I'm pretty sure he could have led the rally down Main Street and into the cold depths of Lake Champlain, and most would have followed gleefully to their watery demise.
OK, that's a little hyperbolic. When Hutz and Gogol Bordello occupy the Ballroom at Higher Ground tonight, the sold-out crowd will undoubtedly frenzy to the band's high-octane stage show. But it won't be quite the same. Regardless of your political allegiances, City Hall Park last night transcended idealism, doctrine and class warfare. For a blissful 20 minutes on an unseasonably warm November night, Burlington felt truly united in a way that, well, only Burlington can. Thanks, Eugene.
(Photos by Matthew Thorsen)