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If you happened to stumble randomly into the Man Man show at Revolution last Thursday, you might have thought you were witnessing an elaborate joke. Five guys in tennis whites and war paint? One of them plays a flute? What is this? But if you closed your eyes and just listened, you may have changed your mind. The music approached incoherence at times, but that was a small price to pay for such an uncommon burst of creativity. And, abstract though it often was, the group wasn't above hitting a groove and moving bodies.
Perhaps the band's most notable sonic characteristic is that they will play anything, especially if you can blow into it or hit it with a stick. Among the identifiable instruments and implements — besides your mundane guitar-keyboard-drums combo — were flute, baritone saxophone, trumpet, plastic toy horns, xylophone, slide whistle, a giant metal rod, bells, a pot and one of those little keyboards you activate by blowing into a tube. I'm halfway surprised they didn't start playing each other's noggins.
I fixate on that flute, because it seems to explain quite a lot about the band. In actuality the flute player, who was also the trumpeter and the guitarist and probably something else, didn't play much more than six bars on the thing. He couldn't even get it to work for five minutes. But that didn't really matter. The show was more about the spirit of experimentation than actually producing orderly notes. Man Man may not be technically proficient — otherwise they'd be a jazz band — but they have a great sense of timing with one another. Somehow they translated their skronking, shouting and percussive chaos into a pleasant racket.
This sort of music is not unprecedented, of course. A couple of times I thought I was hearing something just a step removed from klezmer, or Gogol Bordello with much looser song structure. Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart are also common referents, though it was hard to tell — whereas those artists are noted for the weirdness of their lyrics, the only Man Man lyric I could make out at the show was, “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13!”
It didn't much matter, though. You go to a Man Man concert to watch — the costumes, the instruments, the prancing around — and to get into the scrum in front of the stage, if that's your thing. They're more participatory than most other groups — at least that's what I took away from their superior show last year at Downtown Music, way back when you entered right behind the drum kit. They're best seen in tight spaces like that, and Revolution, with its expansive floor, was probably not the ideal place to catch them. Not that the venue took away from the performance itself. Sure, the theatrics distracted from the music, and Man Man probably deserves a concentrated listen on record. But they seem content to simply put on a good party.