Grebenshikov Lost in the Din

Author: Steve Morse
Source: The Boston Globe
Date: August 7, 1989

MUSIC REVIEW: BORIS GREBENSHIKOV in concert at the Paradise on Saturday.

Boris Grebenshikov is the great hope of Russian rock ‘n’ roll. Isolated for years as an "unofficial" singer in Leningrad, he’s 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, hasn’t been the smoothest. He’s 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 one’s mother, but also one’s 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 he’s 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 Paradise.

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, we’ve been denied the full range of Grebenshikov’s talent, which is a very risky move on his part.

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