Soviet rock star begins tour for American label

Author: Kevin G. Hall
Unknown [Baltimore, Maryland]
July 28, 1989

Boris Grebenshikov may not be a household name in America like Bruce Springsteen, but he’s working on it.

The Soviet rock singer has launched a 21-city United States tour, signaling times are changing for rock musicians once censored and shunned behind the Iron Curtain.

Backed by a six-member band that includes musicians who have played with performers as diverse as the Talking Heads and singer-bassist Sting, Grebenshikov began his "Radio Silence" tour at Max’s on Broadway in Baltimore Thursday, drawing an enthusiastic crowd of about 250.

Grebenshikov’s tour will take him to clubs all around the United States, ranging from larger venues in New York City, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Houston to smaller dates such as Poughkeepsie, N.Y. and Asbury Park, N.J.

The tour for CBS Records Inc. is the first of its kind by a Soviet English-language performer for a major American record label.

Firsts are nothing new for Grebenshikov, 35, who has been somewhat of a Russian cult icon since the early 1970’s. His band " Aquarium’ ‘ has been the leading underground band for years, producing numerous unapproved albums. But in 1987, the official state label, Melodiya, pressed his albums for widespread distribution, pressing 3.5 million copies.

For Grebenshikov, a mathematician by schooling, rock music was almost unheard of when he started as Aquarium’s frontman in 1972. In the mid-1970’s, musicians were left to their own, but by the 1980’s, the KGB was keeping a watchful eye. Grebenshikov was forced from his job as a mathemetician in 1980 and labelled anti-Soviet.

But just as there is now more political freedom under the reforms of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, there is also more artistic freedom, with a virtual line of Western musicians waiting to tour the Soviet Union. The government’s stamp of approval is no longer needed for local concert performances.

Grebenshikov, whose strong features and air of confidence recall U2’s Bono Vox, agrees that politics have changed, but says his task as an artist remains the same.

"Nothing has changed. Absolutely nothing," he said, noting that the ability to write songs does not depend on politics. "It’s the biggest happiness a person can enjoy. I was doing it as far (back) as I can remember myself, so nothing has changed at all."

Grebenshikov, speaking in perfect English he learned because his parents forced the language on him as an unsuspecting 8-year-old, said he dislikes peering into the future, and preferred not to anticipate how crowds would react to his music. He says he feels comfortable touring the United States, in part for what he thought music represents in America.

"America is meant to give rhythm ... and it’s a joyous teenage feeling," he said, adding that he enjoys playing the variety of rhythms in his sets that cover reggae, Latin and traditional Russian folk.

"Music should be different. I like a lot of different stuff. And if I like something, I try to play it."

Both his tour manager and band members say Grebenshikov has the same savvy as any other performer, and say he’s easy to work with because of his firm command of English.

"I was amazed he was singing so well in English," said percussionist Steve Scales, who has played with such big names as the Talking Heads and Tina Turner. "He’s not uptight. We’re not uptight. Nobody’s intimidated by anybody, there’s mutual respect for everybody."

Anthony Tomasino, the tour manager, who has worked for the likes of Hall & Oates and Carly Simon, said the Grebenshikov tour is being treated like any other, but admits, "It is a little bit more special than the others."

The Soviet rock star shrugs off the attention and hype of being the first Russian to tour for an American label, but does find it encouraging that both his album "Radio Silence" and tour have been collaborations with musicians from around the world.

"People are just more generally aware what’s happening in other parts of the world. That’s terrific," Grebenshikov said. "We have behaved as though we are different species. But we’re not, we’re the same. Look at our band, we’ve got two Russian guys, one guy from Israel..."

Described as both spiritually oriented and reserved, Grebenshikov sees music as more than a pasttime, rather a spiritual responsibility.

"People tend to forget music ... music connects people with their roots and ... (music’s) the only thing that connects people with the universe," he said.

By the end of August, the Soviet rocker will have completed his milestone coast to coast tour of United States. He did not dwell on the significance of the long road that led to the tour, but his song "The Wind" seems to suggest his awareness of how things have changed: "Whoever got me that far must be laughing ... All right, I can laugh as well."

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