was back in fashion on the night of Friday, October 19, when a Russian
songstress and two self-described “crazy Siberian guys” took the stage at the
legendary Coffee Gallery Backstage in Altadena. Billed as an “All Russian Show”
by owner and coffeehouse/comedy club veteran Bob Stane, the show was musical
entertainment and cultural education at its finest. Vodka may not have been
served, as the show’s promotional material warned, but it proved hardly
Marina V, who immigrated to America through a scholarship program at 15, can
sing beautifully—that much is clear. Her delivery is pitch-precise and effortlessly
executed, and her voice, which is light and breathy as well as soaring and
emotive, varies with depth. Ringing with melody, the songs complimented her
skillful efforts on the piano, and she sings with a deep passion and fierceness
that is captivating.
the vast majority of her recorded music is in English, Marina—who cites the
Beatles, Tchaikovsky and Tori Amos as influences—took the opportunity of an
“All Russian Show” to perform her favorite Russian songs, including a touching
ode to her “babushka” and a lovely rendition of the classic “Moscow Nights.” If
it wasn’t for her charming stage presence, the set might have felt melancholy;
but thankfully Marina’s sweet personality and ability to poke fun at the dreary
nature of much of Russian folk music—“I are learning [English],” she jokes at one
point—kept the mood cheery. Joined onstage by her songwriting partner Nick
Baker on acoustic guitar, Marina punctuated her songs with anecdotes about her
assimilation to America and her journey as a songwriter. The two are now based
in Los Angeles and play frequently at the Coffeehouse.
up came the act that I had been squirming in my seat with anticipation for.
descriptions of the instrumental duo known as White Fort—composed of Yuriy
Matveyev on guitar and Atyom Yakushenko on violin—as “Russian bossa nova” and a
“unique hybrid of rock, jazz, & folk, propelled by a Russian ethnic pulse
and rocket fuel” were what had drawn me to the venue in the first place. I was
eager to see if the intrigue would deliver, and from the first note to the
last, I was not disappointed. The boys—as Jeanine Renne, their manager
outside of Russia, calls them—exploded onto the stage with a ferocious energy and
impressive technical skill that took the crowd of mostly middle-aged folks and
senior citizens by surprise. The intensity of the music varied, as they went
from filling up every inch of the room with thundering notes to stripping the
music down the bare essentials, enrapturing the audience with a few carefully
plucked notes—and then building it back up again to delight us with the
promised smoky jazz, sultry rock-n-roll and toe-tapping (or foot stomping) folk.
The instruments spoke to each other with clarity and precision,
demonstrating the synchrony the two musicians have developed during their long
career together. Yuriy and Atyom met while studying at the Irkutsk Art Academy
in 1986, and have since released nine studio albums, toured worldwide, and
created scores and soundtracks to films, television, ballet, and even the
Russian circus. Yuriy punctuated the intensity of the music by explaining the
meaning and titles behind several songs, such as one homage to the “memory
of a broken mandolin” and “Mocha Coka,” an ode to a favorite Starbucks drink.
It being their first time in Los Angeles, Yuriy said he was delighted to see
that Americans appreciated the diversity of ex-Soviet culture, and their
recognition that there existed not only the “Russian mafia guys” from films,
but also “the beautiful Marina, two crazy Siberian guys like us, and many, many
more.” They played for over an hour, delivering track after spirited track,
leaving the audience cheering and breathless. “Where do you get your energy
from?” asked one audience member during the Q&A session. “Well, there’s a liquor store just two
streets down,” enthused Yuriy. “And they have… everything.” The duo is taking tour
north to Oregon and Washington, and will return to California to play at Slavianskii
Dom, Stanford University’s Slavic-themed house on Nov. 5, before returning to
the Northwest to wrap up their tour.
are no theatrics or distractions at the Coffee Gallery Backstage; with a 49
person maximum occupancy, the venue is set up so as to focus purely on the stage.
Stane told me he’s found that serving coffee and tea at the adjoining
coffeehouse rather than alcohol helps keep the audience’s attention as well.
This stellar and intimate show was well worth the $15 price of admission, and I
get the feeling it won’t be long before I return.
parking is ample and most shows cost between $15-$20.
Coffeehouse Gallery Backstage is located at 2029 N. Lake Ave., Altadena,
CA 91001. Website: http://www.coffeegallery.com/ Phone:
questions regarding bookings, contact owner Bob Stane at (626) 794-2902 or by
e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.