UKRAINE – This was a secret set with a difference: The venue was a sun-roasted slab of pavement; the “stage” was decked out with sandbags and camo netting; the backing band were all military; most of the audience wore body armour; the location of the gig itself strictly classified.
But this was the backdrop for international punks Gogol Bordello and their Ukrainian-born frontman to perform exclusively for Ukrainian service people in Ukraine last week, and VICE World News was there too.
Earlier this year the band, known for their explosive multicultural live shows, organised a series of benefit concerts for victims of the war in Ukraine, and pledged to donate a percentage of their touring profits too. Then a few weeks ago, Hütz, who emigrated to the US from Ukraine in the early 90s, received an invitation to play in Ukraine itself, a rock n’ roll show of solidarity for Ukrainian soldiers recently rotated out from the front line.
"I really wanted to do this because it's incredibly uplifting for fighters to see that Ukrainians around the world are one,” Hütz told VICE World News.
“People in Ukraine hear a lot about world's solidarity, but to see someone physically coming to them is when they actually believe it. Effort like that changes things tangibly."
The Ukrainian military provided an ace backing band for the gig, all drawn from members of the National Border Guard Service Orchestra and who had been rehearsing the setlist tirelessly.
The audience was about 50 Ukrainian soldiers of all ages, mostly men but a handful of women, a K-9 unit, and a group of elite special forces troops wearing green berets, while a colossal armoured personnel carrier towered over everyone in the background.
Further away from the gig were scores of heavily armed soldiers very much on duty, standing alert in case anything went sideways. This was, after all, a gig taking place in a country under regular aerial bombardment.
It took all of five seconds for Hütz to shout “Slava Ukraini,” before ripping into “Teroborona” (Civil Defence), a song dedicated to the volunteer defenders of Ukraine, everyone from grandmothers to children, sending a shockwave of head-banging rippling through the ranks.
A reworking of "Forces of Victory" incorporated the words of Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan, while the party anthem "Start Wearing Purple" benefited from the accompanying rhythm section of stomping boots.
At times Hütz leapt into the crowd, grabbing soldiers around the shoulders, inviting them to scream into the microphone.
During "Pala Tute," an update of a centuries-old Gypsy melody that a few soldiers seemed to immediately recognise, a special forces soldier broke out into a full Romany tap dance; gyrating his hips, slapping his knees, clapping his hands, machine gun strapped to his chest, lost in the moment.
"To see our songs being played so fiercely by soldiers and for soldiers was the greatest test of their worth,” said Hütz. “If you feel you want to participate in saving lives of Ukrainian people who are defending their peace and their motherland please donate to Razom For Ukraine,” he added, referring to the US-based non-profit run by Ukrainians and Ukrainian Americans that has already raised tens of millions of dollars for Ukraine.
When the band finished, there were hugs, handshakes, and many photos. We loaded our van up and drove away, while the soldiers returned to the war.