Gorbachev once purported “Gentlemen, comrades, do not be concerned about all you hear about Glasnost and Perestroika and democracy in the coming years. They are primarily for outward consumption. There will be no significant internal changes in the Soviet Union ”
But in the 80’s, Perestroika brought musical freedom for many underground Soviet rock bands previously banned from playing live. The underground bands no longer Russian “criminals” as they could release their music officially. Last weekend I was transported back to Eastern Europe 2014, to a tiny dingy smokey cafe in Budapest and a night of frenetic Csardas dancing, Goulash, grapefruit Vodka and gypsy beats, when our local Russian “crims”, VulgarGrad, took to the Northcote stage. A night of Perestroika punk classics and blatnyak, (the songs of the Russian thieves), mixed with gypsy swing, jazz and pop followed.
Already much has been said by me about the opening act of the night, troubadour, poet and swashbuckler adventurer,(as evidenced by his lyrics), Floyd Thursby. I could say I’m almost a regular, and each performance brings something a little different from the last. He set the stage for the night with a tight set, a mixture of ballads sprinkled with anecdotes. From the gentle tale of letting go of love, “You’ve Gotta Fly”, to the lyrics that belie the dreamy beat of, “All The Towns Asleep”. Add the toe tappin, truckin,”Eight Days”, which has one of the best song lines, “And Oswald killed the President Like JFK killed John Wilkes Booth“, and perfect for the overall feel of the night, “The Thief“. But it was a new song he penned for the upcoming Australian movie “The Death and Life of Otto Bloom“, (a story of a man who experiences time in reverse), called “Forget the Future” that held me captivated.
The night was also my first experience of Johnnie and the Johnnie Johnnies. A great name, I was expecting a great band and I wasn’t disappointed. I can easily say that I haven’t recently heard anyone do 60’s go-go, surf, beatnik, garage beats better. And with band members names including; Pope Johnnie Paul II and Johnny Hot Pants Boogaloo, I liked them even before I’d heard a note. They burst onto the stage, drums, guitar, bass, keyboard and sax’s, and I was almost scanning the crowd for Annette Funicello and Midget Farrelly. The songs are infectious, with that 60’s surf guitar twang that I love.
Every song is perfectly danceable and the band showed their versatility mixing it up with 60’s surf beats, cha cha and even 7/8 time. Favourites; the cha cha funky “The Black Flamingo” and one I now have on repeat, the 60’s surf sound of “Mao’s Party Room“. I definitely want to be at that “party”!
A short break, the curtains opened to VulgarGrad and the crowd surged forward. As the band assembled on stage in their convict style striped shirts, trumpet player Adam Pierzchalski, trumpet in one hand, bottle of Vodka in the other, there was an unspoken camaraderie, perhaps a joke in progress that we were unaware of, anticipation grew among the crowd. From the first bars, the gravelly vocal, (that immediately reminded me of a Russian Tom Waits), of charismatic singer, Jacek Koman had the crowd buzzing. This was not an audience unfamiliar with the songs. Jacek directed, the crowd followed, with sing-a -longs to a couple of the songs, including a rollicking version of “Oy Oy Oy“, and at one point he conducted the entire 200 odd crowd dancing in unison.
Having experienced VulgarGrad only once before, (and all I can remember is that I drank too many vodka shots and danced until I could hardly walk), most of the songs were relatively unknown to me, apart from “Oy Oy Oy” and “Zhopa“, both songs which beg you to sing along. Highlights; “Super Good” and “If I Were a Sultan” followed, then a favourite, “Limonchiki“, which has a swing/ska style and supposedly tells the story of growing lemons, growing them on a balcony etc. But understanding the lyrics is not the point of VulgarGrad, they are an assault on the senses in the best way possible. You simply must sing and dance and although you are watching the musicians play with precision, skill and humor on a stage, you feel as though they are among you, Ruska Roma, joking, disorderly, and swilling vodka.
Not so much a performance, more a celebration. A celebration I didn’t want to end!