Monday, November 12, 2007

I Wanna Rock 'n' Roll All Night

During our trip, Erik has been collecting and listening to some contemporary Ukrainian music. He has assiduously avoided campy Euro-pop acts like Ruslana and has instead been focusing on bands that merge some elements of Ukrainian traditional music with more contemporary arrangements. He has listened to popular bands like Mandry and Okean Elzy (the lead singer is son of Ivan Franko National University's rector). Not long ago, he was directed to a band celebrating its 20th anniversary - Vopli Vidoplyasova - or "VV." In fact, we encountered the lead singer of VV a couple of months ago. While attending a music festival at the outdoor Museum of Architecture and Daily Life, a man came toward us (to chat with the people behind us). The crowd applauded and swarmed him. Erik took a few photos, assuming that he was famous. It turned out that he was Oleh Skrypka, lead singer of VV.

VV has embarked on an all-Ukraine 20th anniversary tour that came to L'viv on Sunday. Erik decided that he had to go. About 18 years ago, Erik attended his last rock concert in this region of the world and the sights and sounds of this event were burned permanently into his memory banks. While studying in the USSR, one of the American students found a poster for a show by "СОНИК ЮТ" - Sonic Youth. A fan, Erik immediately got tickets to the show and went with some other American students. The show was a real window into late-Soviet youth culture. The crowd included young people dressed like London punks from 1977, hooligans clad in all-black, and dowdy Soviet college students intrigued by this obscure American group. At the time, the only Western bands in the Soviet Union were big acts like Bon Jovi playing Lenin Stadium. The Sonic Youth show was at a small hotel in a dance hall with a Soviet retro-70s design. Three local bands opened: one was a blues band, another played so-called "acid house," and the third looked and sounded like Echo and the Bunnymen if that band sung in Russian. Finally, Sonic Youth took to the stage. The young people were perplexed by the dissonant, aggressive noise, expecting a more straightforward three-chord DIY sound like the Sex Pistols. During the second song, someone threw what appeared to be a shoe at the bass player. Her husband, the lead singer and guitarist, took offense and kicked the unfortunate hooligan in the face. A fight broke out, concluded by the bizarre security guard making martial-arts contortions and hissing sounds. The band returned, with some unkind words directed at the crowd, and played most of their now classic recording "Daydream Nation." Erik fended off questions about what SY said from some unsavory looking lads (fearing that he might be punished for the band's negative comments), and tried to explain Sonic Youth's "style" in response to an inquiry. In the end, a good time was had by all.

As it turns out, VV opened for Sonic Youth in the band's Kyiv gig on the Soviet tour. Like U2 or REM, VV was a low-key (not quite underground) band that got famous and later experimented with its sound. VV has a vast repertoire, including Ukrainian folk music, dance songs, ballads, and straight-ahead rock with, of course, the addition of a bayan. When Erik arrived at the L'viv Opera House, the site of the show, concert-goers were not yet allowed in. Erik positioned himself to get inside immediately after the doors opened to avoid a long line at the coat check. But, when he got inside, the coat check staff had not started work. He bought a ticket for a first-floor private booth (shared with four other people) to get a better vantage point; so, he found the booth and went inside. The theater was dark, with the band performing its sound check. Erik realized that he was not supposed to be there, so he quietly sat back, watched, and listened as the group discussed the song arrangements, practiced, and finalized the set list. About five minutes before the show was supposed to start, the band left the stage and fans started filling their seats.

The fan-base was a fascinating pastiche of young and old, men and women: scantily clad young women, couples with infant children in their arms, and middle-aged professionals in suits and ties all crossed Erik's path at the show. His favorite fan was this woman to the right, wearing a white fur stole and bouffant hairdo (prompting Erik to ask himself - did this band really open for Sonic Youth?). The crowd started to get restless as the band failed to take the stage, applauding and politely demanding that VV start the show. About 30 minutes late, the band entered to thunderous applause. Oleh Skrypka told the crowd that the set would be acoustic, and the band started to play some of their classics.

During the show, Skrypka showed that he was a master at working the crowd. He invited the audience to submit suggestions on paper of songs for the band to play, and he reacted to these throughout the show, often to comic effect.
Fans expressed their appreciation for the band, tried to pick up other concert-goers, probed Skrypka on his opinion of another musician (who just beat VV out for an MTV Europe award), and of course, requested songs. Skrypka played guitar, trumpet, and bayan, as well as singing and dancing. One crowd-pleaser (not Erik's favorite) was a dance tune with a Bollywood video on the big screen and Skrypka doing Bollywood-style moves. The show was well-paced and surprisingly not loud. The video below gives you a brief sample of one of the traditionally-inspired up tempo tunes by the band. Although VV did not play Erik's favorite song about Cossacks tricking a young woman, he thoroughly enjoyed the concert. In true L'viv rock-'n'-roll style, he was back home by 9:30 p.m.
video

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