MUSIC REVIEW: BORIS GREBENSHIKOV in concert at the Paradise on
Boris Grebenshikov is the great hope of Russian rock n roll.
Isolated for years as an "unofficial" singer in Leningrad, hes been liberated
by glasnost and suddenly given free rein in America. "Only two years ago, nobody
would have let me come here," he said after his Boston debut on Saturday.
His arrival, though, hasnt been the smoothest. Hes been accused
of selling out because he left his band, Aquarium, at home and released a glossy,
English-lyric solo album, "Radio Silence," produced by Dave Stewart of
Eurythmics. "I had total freedom of choice," he said Saturday. "I just
wanted to; work with different musicians. I hope to bring Aquarium next time."
The upshot is still a set of contradictions - a Russian trying to
recast himself as a Westerner, complete with a corporate-looking, pose-laden video. And
though known as the poet laureate of Russian rock, he gave a concert in which his mostly
American pickup band played so loudly and aggressively that his lyrics, sung in English
save for the two encores, were tragically lost in the din.
Moreover, his laconic, Lou Reed-like stage presence was overshadowed by
the busy, flamboyant histrionics of the band, especially guitarist Drew Cingg, who paraded
around with a cache of inappropriate heavy metal licks; and Delmar Brown (a former
keyboardist with Sting), who added some of the most frivolous, off-pitch backup vocals
heard in some time.
Only bassist Sasha Titov (a lone member from Aquarium) and
percussionist Steve Scales, a veteran of tours with the Talking Heads, showed any hint of
the spirituality that runs through the dark, but ultimately optimistic, tone of such
Grebenshikov songs as "Mother" (a plea for recognition from ones mother, but
also ones country), "White Sail Burning" (an incantatory new song about
seeking artistic expression in the West) and "Young Lions," sung in Russian and
praising the irrepressibility of youth.
Later, Grebenshikov, now 35, talked about rock n roll as a
"religious experience," yet that was often painfully absent from the
performance, at least with this band. And the subtleties of the "Radio Silence"
album, which is generally a fine record despite its overtly Western sheen (producer Dave
Stewart made it sound like a Eurythmics album), also were often missing.
Grebenshikov, who recently cut his pony tail and looks more and more
like his idol Lou Reed, had a few special moments, particularly later in the show when he
loosened his stoical stage presence and finally appeared to enjoy himself. He glistened on
"The Quiet One," a new, unrecorded song combining a Led Zeppelin punch with a
Middle Eastern influence partly due to drummer Tal Bergman, who is from Israel. And both
encores were winners, including the solo acoustic version of "China" (an ancient
Russian folk song about a dreamy woman dressed in red silk) and the aforementioned
"Young Lions," which showed how much more comfortable Grebenshikov is when he
sings in Russian rather than English.
Perhaps this writer would have been more enthused had I not already
seen his longtime band, Aquarium, with whom hes recorded 15 albums in Russia. They
played in Montreal last year, opening for Bruce Cockburn and Crosby, Stills & Nash
during a benefit for the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.
Aquarium, who were represented on the "Red Wave" compilation
smuggled into the United States three years ago by American tourist-entrepreneur Joanna
Stingray, were absolutely magical in concert. An eight-piece band featuring guitar, flute,
violin and cello, they sang in Russian and sounded like an exotic, meditative hybrid of
Fairport Convention and Jethro Tull, with reggae, calypso and classical influences. It was
a long way from the more limited commercial sound that Grebenshikov brought to the
Perhaps Grebenshikov was wrong in leaving them home. It would be a bit
like Bruce Springsteen making his Russian debut without the E Street Band. In effect,
weve been denied the full range of Grebenshikovs talent, which is a very risky move
on his part.