Having gone to college right outside of Philadelphia between 2004 and 2008, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of seeing Man Man several times now. The first time I experienced them was a total shock. A friend and I went to the basement of the First Unitarian Church, a nursery school by day and hip Philadelphia indie haven by night, to check out Fiery Furnaces. Based on our choice of concert, we were obviously by no means averse to music outside of your typical verse chorus verse, drums, guitars, and bass kind of rock. But when we suddenly found ourselves watching several all-white-clad whirling dervishes pounding away at two drum kits, several keyboards, and God knows what else, we were stunned. Man Man was a tornado of drumming and melodies, rolled into one massive, slightly inaccessible storm.
That’s why Man Man’s free show last night at East River Park Amphitheater was so incredibly impressive. Man Man is well-known for their live show. They’re wild mountain men who create tribal, earthy, Tom Waits-ish circus music. You wouldn’t normally think of it as something with a terribly wide appeal. But since that basement show in 2005, they’ve been on a national tour with Modest Mouse (weird), had their music in Nike commercials and the television show Weeds, and put out two incredible albums. And according to the demographics of the show last night, they appeal to a wide amount of people, especially the enchantedly adoring high school kids politely moshing in the front, drinking out of flasks and painting each other’s faces with Man’s Man’s trademark white paint stripes. Despite the fact that the band is a little bit out there, they have wide appeal, and their fans seem to deeply care for them. Instead of going ga ga over Kanye West or Lady Gaga, these teens hero-worship the delightfully weird Man Man.
They’ve managed to become so successful, and put on a successful show last night, precisely because they don’t hold back in their weirdness. Sometimes free shows tend to be a bit on the unenergetic-side. I think that sometimes bands don’t entirely put their all into free shows, because they know the fans aren’t necessarily paying for a ticket, and crowds at free shows tend not to be the best, because people show up simply because it’s free, not because they love the band. The band and the crowd usually have a weird understanding of this dynamic, resulting in lackluster shows.
Man Man had none of that.
When they perform, they become something apart from themselves. Even though it’s strange, they don the white clothes and face paint, they throw feathers, and they pull funny faces as they sing raucously sinful songs. They held nothing back last night, just like the teenagers drinking from their flasks, flailing around self-consciousness free in the front. The fact that the music is so complex and so good makes their live show amazing, of course. But it’s also the fact that they act like man-children, holding nothing back and putting themselves on the line for their music. This is why, despite what some might consider the inaccessibility of their music, they’ve managed to become so hugely popular. They put the same incredible energy and attention that went into last night’s free show into all of their free shows, and people correctly relate to that. They prove that audiences aren’t dumb, and they’ll like anything so long as it’s good.
Two of the highlights from last night’s show were “Rabbit Habits” and “Van Helsing Boom Box.” Honus Honus’ signature growl mixed with the rest of the band’s relentless pounding on whatever instrument they happen to be playing – keyboards, drum, guitar, saxophone, trumpet – and it shone during those two songs. I think that these songs are also demonstrative of why Man Man’s music is so wonderful – it revels in the basic human experience without being afraid to explore the gritty, embarrassing parts of that experience.
In “Rabbit Habits,” Honus wails, “And she don’t wanna die alone/ And he don’t wanna die alone.” In “Van Helsing Boombox” Honus earnestly sings out, “When anything that’s anything becomes nothing that’s everything and nothing is the only thing you ever seem to have.” The guttural, no-holds-barred way the band delivers these words makes them utterly relatable to everyone in the audience. Everyone knows what it’s like to feel as if you have nothing, no matter how hard you try. Everyone knows what it’s like to fear dying alone, but people rarely acknowledge this in a large group of people. These whomping choruses provided two of the biggest sing-alongs of the evening, and the more feverishly the band played these songs, the more feverishly the crowd reacted.
Man Man takes a lot of risks in their music, but it encourages their audience to take risks, too. This means that a chorus of young people chanting along to “and he don’t wanna die alone,” becomes a special, celebratory occasion. At least that’s what if felt like last night in the park. Man Man’s music isn’t just good, it can be transformative. That was certainly the case at this free show, and based on prior concert experiences, it’s the reason why this little Philadelphia band that could has, happily, become so successful over the last five years.
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– Madalyn Baldanzi