Since their formation in 2003, Man Man has gained notoriety for being a great band, but mostly for just being indescribably, indefinably weird. Weird, but not offputting. The core members call themselves Honus Honus and Pow Pow, for example. The bulk of their music is made from keys, a sax, and also things like toys and household items. So yeah, they’re weird, but they’re not inaccessible.
Still, as their career marches on, they are making their inevitable approach toward convention. Currently riding on the critical success of September’s On Oni Pond, in which the band pushed themselves in new, more verse-chorus-verse directions (as much as a band with a frontman that recently made headlines for rocking a Wolf Blitzer poncho can, anyway), Man Man, in 2013, are circling normalcy. For a band that built themselves on bizarre, the darker tones and plainer words of 2011’s Life Fantastic and the world-weary confessions of Oni Pond seemed like a treacherous path to some. We don’t like seeing silly people be serious. It makes us uncomfortable.
But after their performance at Great American Music Hall on Tuesday, it’s safe to assume they likely won’t be booked on Saturday Night Live any time soon (or, in the wake of Arcade Fire’s oddball appearance last week, maybe they will). The first indication that they were still safely in the weird was when it was revealed that their instruments, which had spent all of opener Xenia Rubinos’ set covered in black canvases, like haunted items in an attic in a horror movie, were painted up in abstract neon designs. The band took the stage to a woozy, imbalanced version of Cher’s “Believe” and launched right into “Oni Swan” and “Pink Wonton”, the opening tracks from Oni Pond.
From there it was a whirlwind of weird, punctuated by short bursts of sincerity. Sequined capes, the aforementioned Wolf Blitzer poncho, and a collection of coats that would make Macklemore jealous all made appearances throughout the night. The band blasted through new and old work, sticking mostly to more upbeat, more coherent pieces from their last three albums. They also took the time to play around with older pieces that they’ve no doubt played many times before: bleeding songs into one another, or changing up the pacing and adding entirely new instruments.
Also, this happened:
When called back for an encore, Honus (real name Ryan Kattner) returned with a ukulele and some instructions for the audience: “Don’t fucking clap right now. It’ll fuck me up.” What followed was “Deep Cover,” a tender, melodic track from the latest record, which he played to a near-silent house. He stumbled a few times, when people did inevitably clap, and seemed relieved when it was over. “That was fucking hard,” he said. It’s hard to tell if he was talking about the ukulele or the ordeal of laying himself bare for a crowd of strangers who mostly were there to see what goofy-ass costume he was going to wear next.
Last night was the first of Man Man’s two-night run at Great American Music Hall, and it wasn’t hard to see why we’re the only town on the tour to be so lucky. Man Man carry shades of San Francisco in 1969; the freewheeling, acid-soaked Fillmore days. But even as the city, like Man Man themselves, is currently charging toward gentrification even in its most famously-kooky corners, we’re still no strangers to weird out here.