Concert Report: Billy’s Band @ Avrora

I’d like to make a quick shout-out to Sofya for providing me with the opportunity for this cool experience, thanks very much!

Band: Billy’s Band
Venue: Avrora, RU
Date: 21st April 2012
Genre: “Romantic alcojazz”

Sometimes I surprise myself with the concerts which I end up attending. Amidst all the usual metal and punk gigs, there are occasions like this where a bit of diversity helps to spice things up, and keep the concert experience fresh. The combination of a new venue and a new style of music was at first a little alien, but I soon got into the swing of things. The venue, Avrora, was a spacious area with a psychedelic ceiling lights display and a very large stage set up with a whole bunch of equipment. The band, Billy’s Band, play a self-styled “romantic alcojazz”, heavily inspired by Tom Waits, and have released an extensive discography, all while eschewing a record deal. It seems to have done well for them, as the concert was very well-attended, and I found out later the band have also played internationally, in London and New York. Their songs are a mixture of Russian-language and English, both covers and originals, blending in jazz, swing, blues and rock, with a surprise or two on the way.

As we wandered in, we caught the last song of the acappella trio I assumed to be support group doing an impressive version of The Who’s “My Generation”. They seemed satisfied with the sound, and went offstage. Then came the waiting. As I have mentioned in a previous report (Iron Savior), Russian concerts leave a 2 hour gap or so between doors opening and first band coming on. This is perfectly fine if you intend to buy drinks or make use of the concert’s facilities, but it does turn into quite a boring wait for those who don’t. However, after multiple impromptu chants of “Billy’s Band!”, the band finally graced the stage and set up for their evening’s show, clad in clothing which would not have looked out of place in a 1940’s jazz club. I’d been told a little of what to expect, but nothing could’ve prepared me for the show they put on.

The core quartet were joined onstage by two guest musicians for the first few songs (I didn’t catch their names), but each of the four also proved to be competent multi-instrumentalists. Mihail Zhidkikh was the most unassuming of the lot, but also the most diverse musically, covering saxophone, piano and drums (although not at the same time). Andrei Reznikov* was the most distinct-looking, with a hairstyle reminiscent of Hendrix on a bad day, and an array of effects pedals for his blues-inspired guitarwork, although he also played some comically large cymbals on some tracks. Anton Matezius was sporting a shaven head except for a pony-tail at the back, and worked the bayan (a version of the accordion) for most of the set, while also providing some cool lead vocals on one song. However, the spotlight was on the protagonist of this show, Billy Novik himself, playing a huge contrabass while stamping on a tambourine and singing with the resurrected spirit of Louis Armstrong himself. He was entertaining the whole way through, despite being rooted to the spot. At one point he did leave his post, to accept some flowers from the side of the stage, while Mihail took over. Returning, Billy took great pleasure in introducing “Mihail on the contrabass!” before launching into yet another swinging track.

The highlights within the concert were numerous, but I’d like to focus on a few songs which made an impression on me. The band played a lengthy setlist, but at no point did my attention sway as they grooved through classics such as “Немного Смерти, Немного Любви”, “Где Спит Твоё Сердце” and “Выпей Вина”**. The crowd happily sang along (some more rowdily than others), obviously more so with the Russian tracks than the English ones. The ones that impressed me most, however, were their English covers, starting off with their catchy version of “One Way Ticket To The Blues” (Neil Sedaka, I believe) which I knew beforehand. We were also treated to a poignant take on “The Long And Winding Road” (The Beatles), and a cool dedication to Hugh Laurie with “St. James Infirmary Blues”. However, far and above the most stunning cover was their rendition of Sinatra’s “Let It Snow”, Billy’s almost-accentless voice gliding effortlessly along with the rest of the band.

When the band went off for a brief respite, it’s understandable that the audience thought there would be some interlude to the evening, readying for the second act. Instead, there was a surprise performance from the earlier-mentioned trio Jukebox (or Джюкбокс, I’m not sure), who busted out an impressive 10-minute performance of a song I didn’t recognize, or it may have been improvised. Either way, the crowd seemed to enjoy it, as did Billy and his band as they rejoined them onstage for the shorter second part. which flowed just as well as the first. One particularly notable incident was the cover of Russian rap group Kаста, with the song “На Порядок Выше” that was odd at first but still somehow fit into the band’s style. The last track played, “Zah Zuh Zeh” (a Smokey Joe cover), was hilarious to watch as the call-and-response tried to follow a complex pattern, all the more amusement for Billy and his band.

As they met to take the final bow, the applause and shouts were thunderous, proof that a band who have reached international status can still hold a steady home ground. Watching a band out of my usual comfort zone was an eye-opening experience, and even if I may not have understood all of the witty banter going on, I walked away with a smile on my face, and not even alcohol-induced.

*All names here are approximations of the Cyrillic versions: Андрей Резников, Антон Матезиус, Михаил Жидких & Билли Новик.
** “A Little Death, A Little Love”, “Where Is Your Heart Sleeping”, “Let’s Drink Wine” and “Of A Higher Order”.

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