On Wednesday night, experimental indie rock group Man Man gave a thrilling performance, driven by soulful music and bizarre yet entertaining theatrics, at Northampton’s Pearl Street Night Club. The group was joined by co-headliners Murder by Death, a five-piece indie band from Indiana, and singer-songwriter Samantha Crain.
Crain is a very small performer with a very big voice. Crain typically plays with a backing band, but she appeared onstage alone with her guitar a bit after 8 p.m. She appeared a little unkempt but musically Crain’s vocals and guitar were impeccably clean and soulful. She interacted easily with the crowd, who were more than happy to cooperate when a few songs in she led the audience in a sing-along for the chorus of “Songs in the Night.” Crain came onstage with a decent number of fans in the audience, but after an all too brief 30-minute performance she came offstage with many more, having demonstrated to the crowd, to quote one audience member, that “She has a f****ton of talent!”
Following Crain’s successful set, Murder by Death took the stage and played myriad of instruments, including but not limited to the mandolin, cello, a small army of bass guitars and a propane tank used as percussion. The group produced a lot of music from a lot of instruments played by a lot of genuinely talented individuals, but at times it seemed as though these sounds were all struggling to be heard, and lead singer Adam Turla’s tenor vocals were often inaudible.
Despite this, Turla made the best of his duty as front man, which was no easy feat after an audience member standing front and center in the crowd projectile vomited, mid-song, onto Turla’s equipment and pants. The band managed to take this in stride and got through the song, at the end of which Turla laughed incredulously, stating that that was “definitely a first.” Later on in the evening, inspired by Crain’s success with the crowd, Turla invited the crowd to sing along during “My Ball and Chain.” The group completed its set with the help of Crain, who provided vocal support on the album “Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon,” and eventually ended the set on “Brother.”
Later on, as Man Man began setting up its equipment, a heavy air of anticipation accumulated in the ballroom. Man Man essentially transformed the stage into a colorful fantasyland where pictures of Jesus Christ and Willem Dafoe were inconspicuously taped onto adapters and instruments, and there was a splash of neon on everything, from the bright wires all over instruments to the lights behind the giant diamond sign that band member T. Moth played behind like a podium.
Lead singer and keyboardist Honus Honus flitted on and off-stage in a variety of outfits from a casual hooded sweatshirt to a massive winter coat and hat before coming on-stage with the rest of the band in a simple pair of shorts and a shirt, a mere prelude to all of the costume changes and cross-dressing that would take place during the band’s set.
Despite touring in support of its latest album, “Life Fantastic,” Man Man played songs from throughout its discography, and the group started the set off with “Feathers,” a somber ballad from its second album, “Six Demon Bag,” which was released in 2006.
Afterwards, Man Man immediately changed pace with a new song, supposedly off of its upcoming album, which the group had been recording and mixing during the months leading up to its tour. The members didn’t give any explanation as to what the song was, but according to a set list, the song was called “Pink Wonton.” The upbeat song was borderline spoken word, and a complete departure from any of the band’s prior music, which was to be expected as Honus Honus had stated in several different interviews that the upcoming album would be very different from the latest release, “Life Fantastic.”
Later on, Honus Honus donned a blue admiral’s coat and an alien mask attached to his microphone for another new untitled song, which was in the vein of rap. It was difficult to hear all the lyrics, but as with all Man Man songs the untitled track was unequivocally emotive with a very dark sound.
Throughout the evening Man Man mixed the old in with the new, and there was a lot of improvisation from exceedingly talented drummer Pow Pow interspersed throughout the set, which made for a refreshing twist to an already well-received and well-established set of songs.
Several times throughout the night Honus Honus would get up from his piano and make eye contact with a crowd member before sprinting at them while yelling out a battle cry as his band mates played on and looked incredibly bemused. In the past, Man Man has been known for its onstage antics, and the band members seemed to be escalating that reputation to new heights as they literally played on crowd members’ heads and made awkwardly strong eye contact with the audience.
Honus Honus commanded a very strong stage presence throughout the night as he sang standing on top of chairs, flung water on the crowd like a priest blessing his congregation, and screamed and writhed his way through songs, but the other members of the band were equally electrifying. Supporting keyboardist and lead keytarist T. Moth looked completely engrossed in the performance and had a very big presence on stage, using his very expressive mannerisms to match his equally dramatic ’80s rocker wig, despite never really moving from the center background of the stage. Multi-instrumentalists Chang Wang and Jefferson were a bit more mobile and central to the band’s big sound as they traded off playing xylophone, various stringed instruments, saxophone and cornet.
By the time Man Man got around to playing “Engrish Bwudd,” one of its more well-known songs, the crowd was worked up into a massive frenzy, moshing heavily and dancing wildly to the whimsical and indescribably eclectic tune.
After the briefest of intermissions, Man Man came back on stage to perform several songs in its encore, starting off with “Steak Knives,” a song which Honus Honus stated in an interview with The Inflatable Ferret took a year and a half to finish despite being very technically very simple, due to its incredibly personal nature; Honus Honus wrote it following the death of two people very close to him and the end of a long-term relationship.
After a few more songs, and one more costume change into a fabulous green beaded sheer-dress for Honus Honus, the members Man Man barreled through the end of their encore with just as much energy as they started with – closing out a rousing night full of battle cries, dancing, gypsy-jazz, costume changes and only the cheekiest of shenanigans.
Sabrina Amiri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.