With the addition of Jasmin Guevara, perhaps the best drummer in Rock today (see On Jasmin Guevara http://idiscoveredamerica.com/?p=222 ), Igor and the Red Elvises are now the premium performance art tour band in the world. Yes, it’s true that I have not seen them all but I still dare anyone to find one better. The musicianship is simply incredible. Each member could easily star in their own band, but choose instead to play behind the mad genius of Igor Yuzov as host, and Oleg Bernov as his sidekick (an early version of the band won Star Search hosted by a famous sidekick turned MC) . In the vein of a gimmicked novelty act, the audience can take away what it wishes… surfer dance music performed by a Russian Brian Wilson, or Rockenrol performed by a formerly repressed Russian immigrant yearning to breathe free, or a Revue performed by a band who has been there and done that, or a folk act spiced up to appeal to American audiences. The band seems not to take itself seriously, which encourages its audience to do the same. But I am not fooled. I see the band as deep and holy with the tears of a clown pushing back against the darkness that always threatens just outside the tent, bar or living room where the Red Elvises happen to be playing.
First a word about Musikfest where the Red Elvises plotzed for three days this week. It is simply a great music venue…a largely free huge music festival paid for by the sale of beer (and food). What started out many years ago as a place for local polka fans to see their favorite acts has grown into a American institution where you can get a dose of local folk, pop and funk mixed in with national and international acts. The funk is from Philadelphia like it oughta be; the folk might be local or some act that might be touring from a bluegrass state or Sweden. The Zydeco is Louisiana prime. Yes there are cover acts galore…this year you could party with imitation Kinks, Beatles, Stones, Grateful Dead, Jimmy Buffet and many more. And every night there is one worthy paid headliner, but in the twenty years I have been going I never once paid for music, just for food and drink. The real surprises are the acts on the grid that you go to without expecting much…The mad Accordionist, or the bluegrass act that only plays bad 80’s covers (I did not particular enjoy the bluegrass version of Legs or Let’s Get Physical, but you might!). Just next door to the Red Elvises was a real clown singing beautiful sad songs. At Musikfest you Wander…See… Relate….Move on. Just the place where you could take a chance on a band that describes itself in the Musikfest brochure as “Siberian Surf Rock”…What the hell, if you don’t like them you can always go to Puddles Pity Party.
But what’s not to like. Mark Twain taught all future artists that you can get your point across by being serious or fun, and that the latter is just much more…well, fun! It doesn’t take much scratching of the surface to get to a real yearning heart in a song like Sad Cowboy Song. Perhaps that is why Igor goes up-tempo and cajoles the whole audience into a Conga line…”’cause that’s what sad Cowboys do.” Like at Rocky Horror Picture Show, there are various moments where the knowing audiences acts out the routines, perhaps waving hands, perhaps flying like a bird and eating bugs, a little bit of calisthenics, and of course, you can imagine what happens during I Wanna see you Belly Dance. Dregas Smith belts out I’m in Love with a Pizza Man From Mars to adoring young men carrying Pizzas. While it sounds like a first timer might feel left out, Igor takes great care not to let that happen, and the beer does the rest. His new obsession with BACON as a cure all for whatever ails you, has lead him to make a new CD for the first time in years, entitled Bacon ‘cause “you love bacon and bacon loves you.” It doesn’t, you know, it kills you eventually, but for today it all seems to work just fine.
The first set is a journey through America’s mishmash of cultural influence, no less interesting than Dvorak’s New World Symphony. A Polka turns into an exercise class then turns into Hava Nagila. We dance, we wave, we conga, we belly dance. There is a hint that something is happening that is quite important, but it is only a hint. Then at the set break it is time for the children to leave (maybe) and the older crowd that just does not get it to clear out. Those left are perhaps treated to Your Love is Better than Cocaine by the amazing Sarah Johnson, or Igor playing the over the hill Romeo in Juliet, (where the fuck you are) or his sad complaint in Drinking With Jesus (“Why am I not happy? Why am I not rich?” He asks a drunken Jesus, who tells him why, straight away). Each audience member is left to ponder the real world meaning of Ukraine Reggae. By the time Igor and the red Elvises are done, there is exhaustion. It takes a lot of hand waving and dancing to push back the night.
It is said that Igor came to this the way I would imagine most artists do… he was a folkie in Russia and Elvis Pressley came to him in a dream and told him to play Rockenrol, which was somewhat illegal at the time. Interestingly, after his stint at Musikfest he is going Russia for several shows on his truly never ending tour. Watch out Pussy Riot…this is the real insurgency. Done with a guitar, just enough of a foreign accent, and undercover of the night.
I hate gimmicks, or at least I prefer that those who have been given great gifts use those gifts to create art and not nonsense. The world is full of nonsense and if you were just passing by you would think that Igor and the Red Elvises were just part of that noise. But if you stop and look you can sense heartbreak, struggle and redemption. Oh what the hell…have a beer, some barbeque and just Conga like the sad cowboys do.