Man Man’s most recent album, Life Fantastic, was a long awaited release that saw the band making some adjustments to their sound, incorporating strings into the background, and developing a more refined sound in their production. To me -a longtime fan- these changes were (and still are) a little difficult to adjust to, but not enough to make me lose faith in the group. The major change for me was that, for the first time, their recorded material didn’t match up to the feeling of their performances. While the songs were still “fantastic” and held the same influences of gypsy, klesmer, and 50s music, the sound on the album lacked the pure energy that Honus Honus and the rest of his troupe pour into their live shows. But, as I came to realize more through my last opportunity to see them perform, this may be a very positive reflection on Man Man, allowing people to see each of their two sides clearly.
The quintet’s performance at the Pacific Science Center‘s Laser Dome was unique to say the least, considering that the venue is generally intended for an audience that is either seated or lying on the floor. Normally the space is used to project laser light shows onto the ceiling which are synced up to studio album recordings. But even in this unusual space, the concert reflected a certain kind of inimitability that is present in all of the Philadelphia-based group’s recordings. Man Man has always managed an impressive mixture of the chaotic with the beautiful, blending hard rhythms and harsh vocals with highly emotional and deeply resonant lyrics. There’s a feeling of desperation, sadness, and anxiety that imbues much of their music. Heartbreak, loss, and placelessness are common themes that give emotional weight to their songs. Honus’ Tom Waits-style crooning fits incredibly well into both the chaotic efforts like “10 lb. Moustache“, as well as their more emotional tracks like, “Whale Bones” or “Van Helsing Boombox.” His coarse voice breaking over notes gives an added sense of truth to the emotional content of many of these songs. It says something incredible about a band when their raucous performances and wild style are their draw, but their most muted and haunting songs become fan favorites.
The juxtaposition of their high energy performance with the hypnotizing and peaceful laser show, was a good illustration of these two competing elements in their general musical style. But unlike the band, who manages to combine these two aspects both subtly and artfully, the concert setting seemed inharmonious, forcing the audience to either concentrate on the physical performance or on the laser show happening above their heads. The venue was clearly not designed for live acts, with the musicians performing between two stacks of speakers on the carpeted floor, separated from the audience by nothing but a simple strip of masking tape. This made the band hard to see unless you were standing right up against the makeshift stage. Honus Honus gave the rest of the audience a peak at their routine by climbing up on the speakers during some of the more wild songs, like “Haute Tropique“. More subdued tracks, like their usual opener, “Feathers” -which also opened their sophomore release Six Demon Bag (Ace Fu, 2006)- offered good opportunities to view the laser show, since the band would be difficult to see anyway. In these situations, the back of the room was actually the most desirable spot in the venue, providing the best view of the light show. Before the performance began, it appeared to be a more promising scenario, overall, as everyone was seated on the floor or in the chairs. Some people were even lying down. It looked as if there was some general confusion as to what the situation would be for the show; whether it would be a seated event, etc. It seems like the venue really demands that the audience remain on the floor but, unless it is explicitly stated, it feels like it would be an impossible expectation to maintain.
One advantage of the venue was that the sound quality was fantastic. Since the main purpose of the space is for use during musical light shows, the sound really filled up the room and its dome shape made it so that, no matter where you stood, you would still be able to hear. This really gave clarity to the other instruments and the harmonies, which the band does an incredible job of putting together. I loved being able to appreciate the complexity of the songs without having to stand in just the right spot in the venue to get the best sound. Since every musician in the band has an important role to play in most of their songs (other than the very minimalist songs like “Feathers”), it’s refreshing to be able to hear and appreciate the details. Although Honus Honus gets the most recognition, each band member contributes an enormous amount. Christopher “Pow Pow“ Powell holds down the drums in imaginative ways, while the other three members (Chang Wang, T-Moth, and Jefferson) switch between wind instruments, horns, percussion, and vocal duties, among others. Each member of this vivacious group goes through musical acrobatics throughout every performance and it’s a shame when those efforts can’t be heard.
The concert was really gearing up with their performance of “10 Lb Moustache” when it seemed to take a strange turn. There was applause, a pause… was this the end? The lighting changed, but the band went ahead with “Life Fantastic.” Was this the encore? It seemed like too short of a set for it to already be the end. Soon the door to the lobby opened and you could hear the blaring of fire alarms from outside. The gypsy-influenced tune continued until the sound was cut off and the audience was herded out from the laser dome. We were in a unique situation, since the Pacific Science Center is an enclosed complex; also including an Imax theater and a children’s museum. Everyone was left milling around the fountain pools that take up most of the courtyard space. No one wanted to leave, but no one knew if we’d be allowed back in. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before Honus Honus entered the crowd with an acoustic guitar and began to sing, accompanied by Chang Wang with saxophone, Turkey Moth on the melodica, and the other 2 members quietly playing percussion and trumpet. Along with the exiled audience, they performed an incredible rendition of “Steak Knives,” one of the most emotional and intense tracks in their songbook. “Step step, step your heart up. Step step, stitch the holes up,” the entire crowd intoned. Seeing several of the concert goers wading through the pools to get a better view/sound, Honus stepped in to join them, finishing the song while knee deep in the cold water.
After the singalong, the authorities instructed everyone to leave the complex, but the band hung around to take photos and talk with any stragglers. I was able to speak to Honus briefly and he confessed to me that he had stepped into the water because he felt bad that his audience members were getting wet and cold and he wanted to stand in solidarity with them. This kind of humble and gracious attitude towards his fans provides an extra special feeling to the group’s performances and adds a tinge of truth to the earnestness conveyed in their chaotic yet casual style.
In the end, Man Man’s concert at the Laser Dome was a perfect demonstration of both their frenzied and their melodic sides. The insanity and confusion surrounding our evacuation from the venue seemed to match up with the energy of the harder songs in their catalog. Perhaps, this is mostly because of the orderly way in which the crowd exited regardless of our uncertainty. The touching acoustic rendition of “Steak Knives” worked to showcase the other extremes in their repertoire. After intentions for an elaborate, hi-tech concert/laser show turned south, it was this simple and casual final performance that found the band deeply engaged with their audience and what, ultimately, ended the night in the most befitting of ways.
[The next day the following footage was posted on the official Man Man facebook page from a user by the name of “Running Stills“]