Boris Grebenshikov and Aquarium at Washington Square Park
Legendary Russian rocker Boris Grebenshikov, often referred to as Russia’s poet laureate, complained at a press conference prior to performing a free concert in New York in 2006 that it was difficult for him to do so.
“Life is strange for musicians like me,” he said. “Promoters never, ever, ever let me play for free! They refuse because they can’t make money, so when I get the chance to play for free I jump at it!”
Sure enough, at noon Monday—the day after his concert at the Beacon Theatre as part of his seven-city North American tour celebrating the 45th anniversary of his famed rock band Aquarium—Grebenshikov and the group performed a free half-hour concert in Washington Square Park, next to the bust honoring Alexander Lyman Holley (“Foremost Among Those Whose Genius and Energy Established in America and Improved Throughout the World The Manufacture of Bessemer Steel This Memorial is Erected by Engineers of Two Hemispheres”).
He ended with a high point of the Beacon’s show, Aquarium’s classic “Stakany,” or “Glasses (Russian Drinking Song),” and just as at the Beacon, the 100-plus Russsian-Americans crowding him in the chilly mid-December air in the heart of Greenwich Village sang along as he chanted, “They say the drink’s no good for you, no good for you, no good for you. They say that drink’s no good for you, and I declare that it’s fine!”
At least one Russian even danced a jig to the tune, fitting in that the flute-driven “Stakany” does in fact owe to an “ancient Irish tune,” as Grebenshikov noted afterwards during lunch on MacDougal Street. Indeed, as Aquarium again demonstrated at the Beacon, the band, through its leader who “listens to everything,” has absorbed the rock ’n’ roll and progressive rock of such western artists as The Beatles, Dylan, Bowie, Jethro Tull and King Crimson, as well as world musics including Celtic and Indian—not to mention Russian.
And as also at the Beacon, the Washington Square Aquarium fans had clearly followed the band from its beginnings as an unofficial and controversial pioneering Russian rock group that had formed and developed during the Soviet era.
“We try to do free shows everywhere,” said Grebenshikov over lunch, “but it was too cold in Chicago!”
In San Francisco, however, “we were playing at Haight-Ashbury when a double-decker tourist bus came by! A San Francisco landmark--and what San Francisco is about!”
Grebensikov noted that in Russia today, it’s “unpleasant” for such performances by “street musicians,” who risk arrest.
“Soviet has returned,” he said. As for America, which he has visited regularly since recording and releasing his first English album Radio Silence (produced by Eurythmics’ David A. Stewart) here in 1989, he saw little change, “but I’m not looking for it.” He did note, though, changes on MacDougal Street and thereabouts, particularly the replacement of the historic Bleecker Bob’s record shop with a Starbucks.
And speaking of records, Grebenshikov has just released a new CD, Symphonia BG, recorded with a symphony orchestra. And while in New York for a few days, he recorded with drummer Steve Gadd.
“I record all the time, at home [in St. Petersburg], London or elsewhere,” he said. “But it’s purely for the love of music, because nobody buys CDs, so there’s no money involved. And it costs $50,000-$100,000 just to make each record--and you never get paid back. So my records are artistically and aesthetically pure.”
Grebenshikov notes that he records and releases several songs annually, and recently put out Doors of Grass--a three-song maxi-single of previously unrecorded songs written in the 1970s and ‘80s--on iTunes.
“We made some really interesting music in the ‘70s that is still relevant now,” he says, “like Bob Dylan’s [probing 1964] song ‘With God on Our Side’ is still relevant now.”
But touring is his main concern: Following his current North American swing, he has three gigs in London, and then it’s off to Kiev for an orchestral performance.
“It is rather mad,” he says of his tour schedule, “but it’s the old, familiar, honest way of earning money! And it takes us to places like this, where we play music and have fun.”
And while he enjoys traveling the world and spending time with people like the Dalai Llama (“a unique individual, both deity and king”), he prefers performing closer to home in Russia, Ukraine and the Baltics.
“There’s not a lot of great music inside Russia,” he explains, unimpressed by a list of upcoming New York concerts featuring other Russian musicians. “I’m not certain it can even be formulated in Russia.”
Meanwhile, Grebenshikov continues hosting his weekly Aerostatica.ru radio show, with 656 episodes having aired since he launched it in May, 2005. The show’s name derives from aerostat—a lighter than air aircraft, such as a blimp—and allows him to play anything and everything, such that a recent playlist featured artists including Snapped Ankles, Morrissey, Fats Domino, Gary Numan, and King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard.