At the age of seventy, Boris Grebenshikov is far from finished singing.
When I had the chance to see Boris Grebenshikov in Antwerp in 2015, I wrote that I never thought he would play in Belgium. After all, the man may be world famous in Russia, Eastern Europe and other ex-Soviet states, but in Western Europe he is only known to a few crazy ‘experts’, as the legendary rock star at the head of the extremely popular band Åquarium, and as the man who likes to be called BG after his initials.
Åquarium was founded in 1972 in Leningrad, in the Soviet Union. They became increasingly popular in the eighties. They were one of the core groups of the Leningrad Rock Club, virtually the epicenter of the then Russian rock scene, and recorded in Andrei Tropillo's pioneer studio, where a lot of Russian rock classics were produced. During perestroika, the rock scene exploded and Åquarium performed in stadiums. Grebenshikov also released a series of beautiful albums in the 1990s, confirming his status as a rock legend.
In 2015, a lot of people showed up in Antwerp, just like at the many other concerts I saw by Grebenshikov, but that audience mainly came from the Russian diaspora. It was even surprising how many Russians showed up everywhere in the most diverse places. I have already seen Grebenshikov at work in Antwerp, Geneva, Paris, Cologne and especially Dublin, where I enjoyed a performance by Åquarium International, with about twenty musicians from all over the world.
A lot has happened since then. In 2019, Grebenshikov moved to London, but that did not prevent him from touring in Russia. Grebenshikov was on tour in Russia in February 2022, and said that on the day before the start of the large-scale attack on Ukraine, he felt like he was performing in 1930s Germany.
When the invasion started, Grebenshikov recorded a video on social media: “The war between Russia and Ukraine is madness, and the people who started it are a shame to Russia.” It quickly became clear that the tour had to be cut short. The remaining dates were cancelled, and Grebenshikov returned to London. He later stated that his life was in danger in Russia.
Since then, Grebenshikov has not been able to return to his native country. He tours the free world, sometimes on his own, sometimes accompanied by other musicians. His group Åquarium was temporarily put on hold, awaiting better times, and replaced by BG+. Grebenshikov and friends, so to speak, although that is not that different from Åquarium, especially since several Åquarium musicians will be on stage tonight.
The program this evening consists of a new and expanded version of BG Symfonia. In 2016, Grebenshikov already undertook a tour through Russia and the surrounding area with symphonic versions of his work. This resulted in a beautiful CD in 2017 that was simply called ‘Symphonia БГ’. But we were promised that new songs would also be added to the orchestral repertoire tonight. We are curious.
When I entered, I was a little afraid that there would be as many people on stage as in front of the stage, because the hall was far from sold out. Fortunately that was an exaggeration, but I cannot get rid of the feeling that a performance with such a low turnout is not profitable. To bring the balance back a bit, I spent a ridiculous amount of money on the overpriced merchandise stand, and I don't regret it. Fortunately, the concert goes ahead, which is exactly what I would have expected from Grebenshikov.
First the musicians from the orchestra come on stage, then those from BG+, with the exception of the frontman. They perform the instrumental ‘Interludia’. Then the great BG himself moves to the front. He seems a bit awkward and excited, with his bandana, long black shirt, long beard and sunglasses, like a little child of seventy years old. Since indeed, the man turned seventy just a few weeks before this performance. A blessed age, so to speak.
Grebenshikov picks up his guitar and starts with some more recent songs like ‘Небо цвета дождя (The sky is colored like the rain)’ and ‘Вечное Возвращение (The eternal return)’. ‘Нога Судьбы (Foot of fate)’ comes from a very experimental period in which Grebenshikov tried to mix electronics and symphonic arrangements around the turn of the century. Fortunately, we knew ‘Stella Maris’ from the ‘BG Symfonia’ CD, although it is performed here without the magnificent children's choir.
‘Last Of The Stars’ is actually a composition by Brian Finnegan, the man with the magic flute who has been accompanying Grebenshikov since 2008, as a consequence of the aforementioned Åquarium International tour. The fact that he is allowed to play his own song proves how much Grebenshikov loves him, although it is a pity that BG's guitar stops working for a moment because he trips over a cable. Fortunately it turns out to be the only incident in an otherwise flawless concert.
It seems for a moment as if Grebenshikov mainly wants to play more recent work, but that impression changes when he starts ‘Моей Звезде (My star)’, a song from the seventies that was re-recorded in the early eighties – when Åquarium finally had the luxury of recording in a studio – and has since become a classic. ‘Дело Мастера Бо (Master Bo's project)’ dates from 1984, when the group finally broke through to a wide audience. I suppose Master Bo is referring to Bob Dylan, who greatly influenced Grebenshikov in his early days. But it will not have escaped Grebenshikov's attention that Bo could also refer to Boris, and even that BG could refer to 'бог', the Russian word for God. You sometimes wonder whether our Boris knows the 'art of being humble'.
‘Фавн (Fauna)’ was still a new song at the time of the first Symfonia BG tour in 2016, but continues be part of the set list, with its calypso-tinged wind arrangements. It concludes the first part of the concert, in which Grebenshikov mainly played lesser-known work, with a few immortal hits as a supplement. BG has already kept the promise to perform new songs that were not yet part of the symphonic set. And he also kept the promise to play heart-warming, healing music, because the performances were absolutely magical.
Fortunately, more well-known work is performed in the second part. Our hearts blossom when we hear ‘Не Могу Оторвать Глаз От Тебя (Can't take my eyes off you)’, a beautiful love song from 2005, when Grebenshikov was experimenting with world music. The title of the song is of course a reference to the world hit ‘Can't Take My Eyes Off You’. In fact, Grebenshikov's lyrics have been full of references to everything for years, from literature, mysticism, to rock and traditional Russian culture.
With ‘Навигатор (Navigator)’ Grebenshikov returns all the way to his glory days in the nineties, with the title track of one of the best-selling CDs in Russian music history. The record was released in the mid-nineties and matched the melancholy atmosphere in the country. The fansite Bodhisattvas of Babylon wrote: “It's a bit of a downer, but all misery should sound as well.” Yes, so it is.
With ‘Ржавый Жбан Судьбы (Fate’s rusty pail)’ we get another song from the glorious nineties, but from a record that saw Grebenshikov drifting away from the popular waltzes he had written for years. On the album ‘Гиперборея (Hyperboria)’ he moved towards experimental folk, and this song is even part of an lengthy eight-part composition. The very young but extremely talented keyboardist Konstantin Tumanov gets a starring role, and at the end of the drawn-out orchestrations Boris simply watches the musicians without playing along.
We still get more recent work with ‘Из Хрустального Захолустья (From the crystal cavity)’ and especially ‘Минск Пинск и Северодвинск (Minsk, Pinsk and Severodvinsk)’. The latter comes from the brand new EP called ‘Богрукиног (Bogrukinov)’, and is an extensive symphonic piece that, in my opinion, definitively proves that an old man of seventy can still write groundbreaking music. I think Grebenshikov will keep making music until he drops dead, and if his compositions are of this extraordinary level, it will be a wonderful gift to the world.
‘Дубровский (Dubrovski)’ is another classic. The song actually dates from the early 1990s, when Grebenshikov had disbanded Åquarium at the height of its success and continued with the BG Band, but it was not officially released until 1996, at a new successful peak of the reunited Åquarium. ‘Сокол (Eagle)’ is also a well-known song, from the experimental masterpiece ‘Лошадь Белая (White Horse)’ CD from 2008. The second set closes with another expansive symphonic piece from 2018: ‘Крестовый Поход Птиц (Bird crusade)’.
Grebenshikov and his band members leave the stage, but the orchestra remains seated, because there is more to come. When he returns, Grebenshikov leaves the orchestra aside for a moment. He starts ‘Сидя На Красивом Холме (Sitting on a beautiful hill)’, taken from ‘День Серебра (The day of silver)’, which Grebenshikov once called the essential Åquarium album of the eighties. The audience reacts blissfully.
The group members join in enthusiastically. This includes the already mentioned flutist Brian Finnegan and keyboardist Konstantin Tumanov, as well as the drummer Liam Bradley, who has been present for a few years. Violinist Andrei Surotdinov, who was sitting between the strings section for the entire performance, now veers up. He has been playing with Grebenshikov since the mid-nineties. Bassist Alexander Titov was even playing in Åquarium in the glorious eighties, and has been playing with BG again for more than a decade.
There is one song of Åquarium that everyone in Russia knows. Even my Russian ex, who hates all things Grebenshikov, knows the lyrics by heart. But Grebenshikov refused to play it for a long time, which is understandable because the song is not actually his. It's called ‘Город Золотой (The city of gold)’. It owes its success to a succes movie from perestroika times: ‘Асса (Assa)’, for which Grebenshikov wrote most of the music. Since he can no longer return to Russia, Grebenshikov plays it at every concert, if only to remind the audience how much he influenced Russian culture.
The room became silent during the sensitive song, but then went completely crazy on ‘Стаканы (Glass)’, a cheerful drinking song that closed the set with only the BG+ group members. The performance ends solemnly with ‘День Радости (The day of joy)’, in which the orchestra gets a a starring role. The song also dates from the transitional period of the early 1990s, but was re-recorded in 2010 with Brian Finnegan's magic flute. The strong composition, Grebenshikov's singing, the orchestral arrangements and Finnegan's flute make it a wonderful ending to a beautiful performance.
Conclusion: Boris Grebenshikov has given an overview of all periods of his career, which has now spanned more than fifty years, and has proven that even after seventy years, he is still far from finished singing. The performance was also very varied, with a whole range of melancholic folk, as well as influences from world music, cheerful sing-along songs, and more experimental pieces. Many songs from the past decade were featured, but that only makes me want to delve further into this period, because it was like the whole performance of a disarming beauty.
Setlist part 1: Interludia / Небо цвета дождя (The sky is colored like the rain) / Вечное Возвращение (The eternal return) / Нога Судьбы (Foot of fate) / Stella Maris / Last Of The Stars / Моей Звезде (My star) / Дело Мастера Бо (Master Bo's project) / Фавн (Fauna)
Part 2: Не Могу Оторвать Глаз От Тебя (Can't take my eyes off you) / Навигатор (Navigator) / Ржавый Жбан Суд ьбы (Fate’s rusty pail) / Из Хрустального Захолустья (From the crystal hollow) / Минск Пинск и Северодвинс к (Minsk, Pinsk and Severodvinsk) / Дубровский (Dubrovsky) / Сокол (Eagle) / Крестовый Поход Птиц (Bird Crusade)
Encore: Сидя На Красивом Холме (Sitting on a beautiful hill) / Город Золотой (City of gold) / Стаканы (Glasses) /День Рад ости (Day of joy)
Video: Дубровский (Dubrovski)
Video: День Радости (Day of joy)