Picture six men in sparkling purple cloaks playing various obscure instruments beside a disembodied deer head enshrined in flowers. This image perfectly captures the mood of indie rock group Man Man’s performance at the Black Cat on Oct 2. Man Man is a Philadelphia-based band often described as experimental, though in an interview with CLTure, frontman Ryan Kattner, better known by his stage name Honus Honus, rejected the term as potentially alienating. Their discography itself, which has consisted of five studio albums since 2004, is for the most part lively and accessible, albeit absurd. The group has only released two new singles in 2019, “Beached” and “Witch,” and their setlist on this most recent tour consisted of songs from across their discography. Man Man’s performance at the Black Cat showcased the group’s raucous and unusual instrumentalism, for which they are best known, as well as their zany personality.
Man Man’s performance style, much like their personality, is unique. While their music centers on the piano playing of Honus Honus, the multi-instrumentalism of the other members adds dimension and character to their sound. Often, members would even switch to new instruments mid-song. Most notably, they wielded a double-necked guitar, saxophone, keyboard, drums, a variety of brass instruments, maracas, various toy noisemakers, and, at one point, a skeletal rib-cage decked out with doubloons. This made their sound incredibly diverse and full, particularly in rousing, fast-paced songs like “Hurly/Burly.”
Before Man Man performed, however, two-piece punk band GRLwood brought fire to the stage with their self-defined “scream pop.” Vocalist/guitarist Rej Forester and drummer Karen Ledford impressed the crowd, creating an incredibly dynamic sound from only their two instruments. Their sound is aggressive and loud with a surf-rock undertone. This was amplified by Forester’s vocals, which switched from soft crooning to tearful whining and culminated with screaming that could put the Ring Wraiths to shame.
Most of the songs the pair played were from their 2018 album Daddy, including “Bisexual,” “Im Yer Dad,” and “Vaccines Made Me Gay.” “I Hate My Mom” was the only song GRLwood performed off their most recent album I Sold My Soul To The Devil When I Was 12 (2019), but it carried the most weight. Anger is palpable in all of the duo’s songs, which address biphobia, sexual orientation, harassment, and broken familial relationships. But “I Hate My Mom” was the only performance where tears could be seen in Forester’s eyes. While GRLwood’s style of music differs greatly in both theme and delivery from Man Man, they opened the night explosively and set the tone for the evening. Both GRLwood and Man Man bring life and innovation to their music by bending preconceived genres and introducing new performance styles.
Prior to Man Man’s opening number, a rendition of “Cloud 9,” Honus Honus and his cloaked cronies—one of whom had only the left half of a beard—walked around the stage wafting sage incense into the crowd. This unusual introduction foreshadowed many bizarre breaks in the set. At one point, saxophonist Pee Wee Tay Tay snuck his way offstage and into the crowd to dance while wearing an askew bald cap.
Man Man satisfied the eager crowd, mostly made up of white adults in their late twenties and thirties, by playing fan favorites such as “Head On,” “Engrish Bwudd,” and “Loot My Body.” They performed music from each of their studio albums, from The Man in the Blue Turban (2004) to On Oni Pond (2013). Proving to be a dedicated fanbase, many audience members sang along to not only the fan favorites but some deep cuts as well, like “Bangkok Necktie” and “The Ballad of Butter Beans.”
Crowd engagement was central to the performance, and Honus Honus often interacted with the audience members packed into the intimate upper room of the Black Cat, requesting that they mimic the screams or odd noises that he would make into the microphone. During the performance of “Loot My Body,” the band passed a life-sized plastic skeleton into the crowd. The audience excitedly lifted the skeleton so it could crowd surf.
After around an hour and a half, broken up by planned bits—drummer Jazz Diesel playing the Law and Order theme while Honus Honus donned a fur coat, for example—and off the cuff moments, like Honus Honus spontaneously laying on stage for several minutes and leaving the other members to sing in his place, Man Man closed their set with “Whalebones,” from their album Rabbit Habits (2008). “Whalebones” is one of the band’s longest and slowest songs, and it seemed a fitting wind-down from a show filled with noise and life.
In a music industry steadily becoming saturated with electronic and artificially produced sound, from EDM to lo-fi study jams, it is incredibly refreshing to witness Man Man celebrate and embrace the potential of instrumentalism. Both Man Man and GRLwood exemplify what live performance should be about: a showcase of what human beings can create simply through instruments and their own creativity. They mesh together genres that appear to be opposites, like scream-rock and pop, and play instruments you’ve never heard of—sousaphone, anyone? And they do it right before your eyes. Performance is supposed to make the audience feel alive, and part of that must be projected from the performers. GRLwood’s anger and tears and Man Man’s spontaneity and sincerity translate into their music in a way that leaves the audience exhilarated. Hopefully they and other artists are able to continue to emulate this energy, ingenuity, and fullness of sound in their live performances so that more audiences can experience the awe of watching musicians that they love express themselves to the fullest. Especially if this expression includes said artist holding a taxidermied deer head up to the heavens, accompanied by a wicked guitar solo.