Eclectic Man Man delivers satisfying package

By Garth Brody

manmancourtesymyspaceIt was a packed house Saturday night at the Northampton Pearl Street Night Club, and headliners Man Man burned it down, laughing all the way.

Even before Man Man began to roll out their strange stage set-up (more on that later), the shoulder-to-chin crowd was primed and ready from the pleasant surprise that were openers Who Shot Hollywood, who apologized in advance for their band’s name. For a high school band from right here in Amherst, they played some unexpectedly infectious nerd rock, complete with tongue-in-cheek punk energy and a healthy amount of noise. The bassist/vocalist, Lucas Kendall, hopped on and off the bass drum more than a few times during their short set, screaming at intervals to the crowd and to other band members.

And then, quietly (aside from the war chants and whoops called from enthusiastic spectators) and dressed in street clothes, the members of Man Man carried their equipment onto the stage. Besides each member’s main instrument – there was a marimba for the guitarist, a set of vibes for the saxophone player, a synthesizer for the bassist and a drum each for the guitarist and the keyboardist. And then there was the keyboardist.

Honus Honus’s slender Rhodes electric piano – sitting perpendicular to the crowd, face to face with the drum kit – served as both an instrument and the work desk of a mad scientist. It held among other doodads doubtless picked up on his travels, a cannister full of colorful feathers, a small brass bowl, a spoon and a squeaky toy given to him moments before they began their set. Suffice it to say that every one of these knick-knacks had its moment in the spotlight over the course of the evening.

Between setting up and starting the set, Man Man underwent a transformation backstage. Disappearing from the stage in jeans and t-shirts and hoodies, they emerged in their performance with uniforms – white athletic clothing and war paint, ready for the racquetball massacre of 1825.

The set commenced feeling almost tame, building slowly as rhythms ricocheted from Honus to Chang Wang to Pow Pow until they reached their full force. Not that they ever got that loud. They didn’t need to. The power of Man Man, after all, can not be measured by the wall of sound they push at you. Theirs is the power to rouse the spirits of the audience, turning the character of the rock club to some sinister psychedelic religious revival meeting.

Each member sang, or rather chanted, in just about every song. And between the crashing and the chanting could be heard the impromptu screaming of an errant band member or fan. And the nature of Man Man’s music is such that each and every stomping foot, bellowing drunkard or squeaking toy fits perfectly into the framework of their musical nonsense.

The well-rehearsed spontaneity between the five musicians on stage kept the show dynamic and unpredictable, without slipping into self-indulgent noodling. Within the tight and tricky structures of each song, the band members found time to throw water onto the swaying masses below or elbow the keyboard for a bit of playful dissonance. At one point, Honus and the drummer, and Pow Pow, traded timed leaps, still holding down their respective stations, in an overwhelming display of showmanship.

Equally apparent as their musical spirit and skill Saturday night was Man Man’s weird and dark sense of humor, which is surprising, because they don’t banter between songs; in fact, they don’t do anything between songs. There is no between songs. Their humor surfaced, instead, during the unending medley of a performance. For one song, Honus dressed himself (so quickly you could hardly notice) in a sparkling blue dress, proceeding to stand on his bench and dance like a lunatic while he sang. Later, he held his spoon over a large metal pot, leering around the room with giddy anticipation, before dropping it in at an appropriately dramatic moment in the song.

And so they continued, throwing one sound against another, all the while grinning and yelling and sweating and jumping around. The set ended, fittingly, after about 40 seconds of impossibly timed, coordinated band crashes. They struck the last one and slunk off as if escaping from a recent act of vandalism.

There was one piece of miscellany on Honus’s keyboard that never was moved from its perch or even struck with a drumstick: a small pink skull, gazing into the crowd. Maybe he just forgot to use it. Or maybe he is saving it for when Man Man play the apocalypse.

Garth Brody can be reached at [email protected]