Wednesday, September 30, 2009

US Mini-Tour: 4 Gigs in 5 days

NY Taxis from the High Line
Flying back to NYC from Moscow was not so bad, I guess because I usually fly back to LA from Europe, so I am used to longer flights.  After landing at JFK, whisking through passport control and customs, and jumping into a waiting cab, I found myself on the doorstep of my dear friends Sono and Chuck's loft in the East Village. Vlad and Huun Huur Tu were staying at a friend's place in Harlem, and so I had a much needed day of adjusting from the jet lag and taking care of some US business.  Chuck is in Europe filming his music documentary of The Duke and The King, so things were quiet at the loft, and Sono and I had a great meal at a vegtarian restaurant - perhaps the most healthy meal I've had in a month. I caught up with my friend Aria for coffee, did a meet and greet with a writer, and then went to see the HiLine (very cool) and a somewhat surreal late night Mexican dinner with Sono in the village.

Carmen & Sayan record a radio interview in Carmen's cramped hotel room

Carmen arrived the next day, and Sayan, Vlad and I met him at his cramped hotel room (booked at the last minute) to record an interview for the "Echoes" NPR show. Then cab rides and shuffling around of people and equipment, ad we were all at the sound check for our gig at Poisson Rouge.  We loved this club - the sound and front of house were real pros, they fed us great food, and most important, the show and the audience were great.  No quartet this time, but violinist/violist Olympia Moy sat in with us and did a great job.

Onstage at Le Poisson Rouge in NYC

Violinist Olympia Moy and Jo (who helped with sound) at Poisson Rouge

Vladimir and his friend Sasha (the 4th Sasha we have met on this tour, and the prettiest)

Kaigolo, Carmen, Danielle (an NYC fan) and Sayan

Up at 6 am the next day to catch an early flight out of LaGuardia, a plane switch in Chicago, and then we found ourselves in Indianapolis, met by a van from Earlham College who took us to a Holiday Inn on the border of Indiana and Ohio.  We were all wiped out, and decided to have dinner at the Ground Round in the hotel.  The staff and hotel guests did not know what to make of us, and our waitress had never heard of Siberia, let alone Tuva.  We got a surprise package from Chad of some alligator skin (his family are alligator hunters) for the guys to use in instrument making, and Sayan and Kaigolo had some fun with freaking out the help by using them as bibs for dinner.

Mark at the airport in Chicago

Sayan tries on his new alligator bib

Kaigolo has one too

Another early morning, and we headed to Earlham College to rehearse with the college string quartet, who would play with us for the 2 Indiana gigs.  They were very excited, nervous, and after a shaky start, really rose to the occasion. After rehearsal and a quick lunch, we loaded up the vans and took a 3 hour drive to Bloomington where we would perform at the Lotus Festival.  We were late for sound check, so did the best we could, and a few hours later were on the main stage as the headliners for the night.  It was a good concert, and the kids from Earlham were beside themselves with excitement in being part of it.  I really enjoyed working with them and coaching them in their first real pro situation.

Mark at sound check at Lotus Festival

The band in concert at the Lotus Festival

The Earlham string quartet performing at Lotus

Loren's parents drove up from Kansas City to see us at Lotus

Radik & Alexi at one of our many airport layovers

Kaigolo and Alexi at the Earlham soundcheck

The next day, 3 hour ride back to Richmond, a quick sound check, quick dinner, and then we performed at Earlham College to a wildly enthusiastic audience of students and faculty. It was my favorite night of the "mini tour", and despite being exhausted from all the traveling, the band sounded great.  Sayan had been in a dark and pensive mood all day, but seemed to lighten up considerably after the show.  At 10 pm, we drove 2 hours to the airport in Indianapolis, and checked into the Radisson with a 4:30 am wakeup call in order to make our flight to Minneapolis.  For reasons not entirely clear to us (procrastination, cost) we had to take 3 flights to get to Minneapolis, making a 6 hour journey to what should have been a 2 hour flight if we went direct. The mood among the group was dark - everyone was exhausted, and Carmen was unhappy about the sound and content of the 2 shows in Indiana, and wanted to try a new set list and make other adjustments.  Sayan was back to his dark mood, and separated from the group at the airport layovers, trying to get some sleep.  Alexi and I played my travel guitar, Vladimir worked on his laptop and the rest just quietly kept to themselves most of the day.

The band and the student string players at Earlham

Alexi plays my travel guitar at yet another airport

We arrived in Minneapolis and were greeted by the very friendly and extremely helpful Dan Beers, who drove us to the hotel where we ran into the singer from Watcha Clan, for whom we would be opening at the Cedars Center.  We had a rehearsal with a new string quartet set for 3 pm, and that gave us only an hour to rest before heading over. Sayan announced that he and Huun Huur Tu did not want to go to the quartet rehearsal, much to my consternation, as it would be impossible to rehearse the acoustic songs without them.  After much discussion in Russian, Vladimir convinced the band to go, and I promised to make it as quick as possible so they could rest before the gig. The quartet, led by Jacqueline Utal, was amazing, and the acoustic rehearsal went really well and really quickly.  Dan picked us up and we got the gear over to the the venue, and then back to the hotel for a one hour rest, during which Carmen re-tooled the set list.

The sound check at Cedars was a tough one. The sound engineer, who had worked with HHT before, was favoring the acoustic sounds of HHT and the quartet over the electronica, not really understanding the concept we were going for. Carmen jumped in to get the sound in the house the way we usually worked, but met with great resistance from both the sound guy and Sayan and eventually got frustrated and gave up.  There was only a few minutes until the performance, so we had to leave the stage and let them open the house. 15 minutes later we took the stage, and it was a credit to everyone's professionalism that we performed a great show despite the fact that the sound on stage was terrible - Carmen's electronics were barely audible. We received a standing ovation and an encore, but after the show, the mood in the green room was very dark. Vladimir and Huun Huur Tu left soon after to go to a party at a friends house. Carmen broke down his gear and disappeared.  I chatted with the quartet for a while, then went back into the club to watch Watcha Clan, who gave a great performance.  I just danced away the sadness, noticing that Watcha Clan had brought their own sound person (smart). Eventually Carmen came back and also got into the Watcha Clan show, and when the club was finally empty the two of us, once again helped by Dan Beers, loaded up the van and headed back to the hotel.

Watcha Clan performs at Cedars in Minneapolis

The next morning, I did my final packing, checked out of the hotel, and texted Vladimir to tell him Carmen and I were leaving for the airport. It turned out they were all sleeping in before their van ride to Michigan for an acoustic gig. Sayan and Kaigolo came down, as they had not got the word about the late check out. They went outside, smoked a cigarette, and then said a quick goodbye and went back up to their rooms. Vlad came down for a couple of minutes, another quick goodbye, and I jumped on the van and headed to the airport with Watcha Clan and Carmen. Six hours and two flights later, I was waiting for a shuttle at LAX ,thinking about the next step in this amazing journey.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Weekend in St. Petersburg

Why go back to Moscow when you can spend the weekend in St, Petersburg? That was the idea planted in my head by Vladimir last week. The original plan of staying at the home of a Russian rock star friend of Sasha's never actually materialized, but the ever-helpful angel Tatania contacted her cousin Natalia who is a tour guide in St. Petersburg and hooked me up big time.

I left the Ural hotel in Perm at 4 am with the "Eternal" crew in our trusty "Famous Musicians" van, and we arrived at the airport in Perm in time for our 6:15 am flight to Moscow.  It was a very old plane, and the overhead compartments could not hold anything much larger than a messenger bag, so all of us had to be very creative in finding spaces to store our musical gear for the flight. The seats conveniently folded both forward and backwards, pretty much guaranteeing that in a crash landing, you will fly forward and hit the pilot.  Unless you have one of the rare seat belts that actually stay buckled -belts that look alarmingly similar to the ones in the Dodge Dart I drove in high school. Now this is the Aeroflot Airlines I have heard so much about!

Carmen, Celeste,Chad & Joe say goodbye in Moscow

After landing in Moscow, I said goodbye to Carmen, Loren, Celeste, Chad & Joe, who took a transfer to the international airport where they had an 8 hour layover before their flights back to LA.  Huun Huur Tu took a van back to their Olympic Village digs in Moscow, and Vlad and I hung out at the Moscow terminal to wait for our flights - his to see his mother in norther Russia, and mine to St. Pete's.

My flight took off at 9:45, and the great discount I got on this shuttle was offset by the $50 in extra baggage fees I was charged, because I am lugging my keyboards and gear with me so I will have them for the trip back to NYC.  There was an offer to keep them in Moscow, but the logistics were never very clear, so I opted to drag them along on my weekend.  The shuttle plane, operated by Russiya Airlines, was even older than the previous plane.  This one featured welded-shut ashtrays in the seats, metal tray tables, and overhead compartments that must be meant to hold purses, as even a briefcase would not fit.  My travel guitar got to fly in Business class, in a space where there was a missing seat. Nice!

My hotel on the Fontanka river

The flight is only an hour, and I arrived in St. Petersburg airport around 11:00 am.  About 20 minutes later, the transfer taxi arrived, driven by a very nice man named Roman, who knew one word in English - "traffic". This was his greeting to me, an apology for being a bit late.  This was also the word he used as he pointed out various points of interest along the way - Moskovsky Propekt "traffic", Neve River "traffic", Anichkov Bridge "traffic"! Even so, I could see that St. Petersburg promised to be a city to remember.

The Anichkov Bridge - famous for the "horse tamer" statues

My mini-hotel was just off the Fontanka River embankment, close to the bridge that bears the same name as the hotel "Anichkov Bridge".  I arrived a little before 1 pm, and t was a beautiful day, so I took a walk around the city, mostly on and around the main street, Nevsky Prospekt, a name I remember well from Doestoevsky.  What a beautiful city!  And unlike Moscow, the people here smile, and seem more friendly.  Like Paris, the young lovers kiss on the main streets, and exuberant women run up sidewalks to greet each other with hugs and kisses that in other cities would e reserved for long lost reunions.  The rivers run through the city, and there are tourist boats everywhere, sliding under the many ornate bridges full of beautiful young Russians who are, yes, smoking cigarettes and holding open bottles of beer.

A poet watches over the church square

St. Petersburg is for lovers

The Palace Square (now the Hermitage Museum)

Your carriage awaits, Cinderella

In Russia there is a law that all young women must wear heels (or so it seems)

My hotel is just across the river from the former residence of the famous choreographer-impresario Diaghilev, who may have concocted the ballet "Rite of Spring" with Stravinsky watching the same view as I have today. I checked in via email with Natalia, who confirmed she would meet me at noon the next day for a tour of the city. Since I was running on very little sleep, I decided to have an early dinner and found an amazing Italian restaurant just off Fontanka called Probka (the Russian word for "cork").  A wine bar/bistro, it had a great view of the St. Simeon Church. I had a carrot cream soup followed by the special risotto with chaterelle mushrooms and a glass of malbec.  For dessert, I ordered chocolate gelato, but on the urging of the waitress, changed it to the home-made pear gelato that was one of the best things I have ever put in my mouth. Incredible!  This dinner made up for all the tongue and mayo meals of Perm, and I went to sleep a very happy man.

Probka - another solo dinner in a romantic city 

The next day I met Natalia at noon, for a tour of the city.  An English teacher most of the year, she works as a professional guide when school is out, and she knew her stuff.  The photos below show some of the wonderful places we visited in the city.  Unfortunately, it began to rain about half an hour into our walking tour.  I thought it might be a good idea to cut it short, but Natalia insisted that we power on and do the complete 4 hour tour she had planned. It is just as beautiful in the rain, she insisted, and I had to agree, but by hour 4 I was sloshing around in wet sneakers and very damp clothes, so she took pity on me and cancelled the planned boat trip at 5. Since it was a Saturday, the most popular day for weddings, there were many brides and their entourages following the tradition of visiting all the romantic and holy places on their wedding day for good luck - even in the pouring rain! So who was I to complain?

At Pushkin's statue in Art Square - as for the pigeons, everyone's a critic I guess

My tour guide Natalia, cousin of Tatiana, our friend in Perm

Inside St. Ivan's church

Catherine the Great gave this statue as a gift to her husband...

so newlyweds visit it for good luck right after their wedding

These two hang at the statue and play "Here Comes The Bride" for tips

Another bride near St. Paul's fortress, where they imprisoned Doestoevsky
Not sure why that is good luck

Peter the Great was humble and never had a big head, we are told

This beautiful church is named something that translates into
"site of the bloody massacre that is now sacred"
Don't know what their parish soccer team is called.

 I got back to the hotel and put on some dry clothes and to ward off a cold, I thought I should find some soup and hearty cuisine. I headed down the Fontanka away from the touristy cafes of Nevsky Prospekt, and found a small restaurant that had a Russian menu in the window with one phrase in English - "Georgian Cuisine." I entered and through a pantomime asked about soup, and my efforts were rewarded with a big bowl of an amazing soup with herbs and spices, rice, vegetables and a small piece of beef brisket. Yum!  It came with an unusual sourdough-type bread and the only red wine they had at the moment - some Malbec.  Amazing.  After dinner the rain had stopped, and I took a walk through the neighborhood with the idea of finding some live music.  But the long day took its toll, and instead I made a circle back to the hotel and a good nights sleep.

Entrance hall of the Hermitage Museum

The next day I met Natalia in St. Peter's Square at 11 am for a tour of the Hermitage Museum.  If you do not book in advance, you usually have to wait in a 3 hour line, but she had pulled some strings, and I handed 400 rubes to a colleague of hers who looked like a character from "Crime and Punishment", and he produced a ticket from his briefcase, and we were able to skip the line, go through the "tours only" line, and be part of the first group of the day in the museum.  What an incredible collection of art, one that spans centuries.  It is said that if you spent 1 minute in front of each work of art in the Hermitage, it wold take you 8 years to look at every painting and sculpture.  So Natalia gave me a tour of the greatest hits of the Hermitage in about 3 hours - a perfect tour.

Hey, I found a great loft space in St. Pete's

Natalia was a great guide - we got there before the crowds

Detail from the throne room

This malachite vase came from the Ural Mountains near Perm

Cost Plus World Market doesn't stock this dining room set

  It was a gorgeous day, so we headed to the river and arranged for the boat tour.  Since the bat had headsets with tours in every language, it would be one I would do on my own.  I bid Natalie farewell, and to kill the hour before the boat arrived, I sat at a cafe by the river, had a pint of Russian beer and enjoyed sleepy St. Petersburg on a Sunday.  The boat tour delivered, and is a great way to view the city and really get a perspective on how it must have looked to approaching ships visiting the Palace of Catherine the Great.

Great day for a boat tour

Hey. it's the star of "The Office" with his Russian girlfriend!

The LA river is nothing like the Fontanka, but both run through the city

After the boat, I decided to head back to the Georgian restaurant and see what else was on the menu.  One motivation for going back was it is very reasonable, and I was running low on rubles and did not really want to change more dollars since I was leaving Russia the next day.  This time I had some trout shiskabob, with a great dill and sour cream sauce, and a smaller bowl of that wonderful soup. The entire meal cost about the same as a large latte at Starbucks. I headed out into the night, once again looking for some live music.  I had read about a jazz club about a 20 minute walk from the hotel, so I headed that way, but about 15 minutes into the walk, my spidey sense kicked in, and I realized that this jazz club, like many in the US, was in a pretty sketchy neighborhood.  When I saw several doorways with armed security officers guarding hotel entrances, I decided that it was better to head back toward Nevsky Prospekt, and abandoned the idea of a jazz evening. So I had another nice evening walk through the city, and went back to the hotel and packed for the long journey back to New York. At 8 am, my trusty driver Roman showed up, and as we put my cases in his car, he greated me with his catch phrase -"Traffic!".  Four hours later I was in the Moscow airport, transferring to my plane to NYC.  I spent my last rubles at the Duty Free shop on my only purchased souvenir of Russia - a bottle of Beluga Vodka. The real souvenirs are the memories I am happy to have shared with you in this blog. Dos Vedanya!

Huun Huur Tu performs in St. Petersburg on Oct. 3rd
(but not with Carmen and me)
Maybe next year...Dos Vedanya!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

From a Dark Past to a Bright Future - Part 2: Economic Summit

The riverside setting of the summit in Perm

I have a Russian VIP press pass - don't ask me why

Earlier in the same day we visited Perm 36, Sasha took us to a major Economic Summit being held a resort near the Kama River.  It was attended by the Governor of the region of Perm, as well as the Minister of Culture, and many luminaries and officials from all over Russia and from other countries as well. The day we attended focused on the Cultural Initiative, so it was attended not only by officials, but also Russian movie stars,TV stars, talk show hosts, directors of museums, film directors and several billionaires.  To us, they all looked like regular people, and Sasha had to keep telling us "that person is a big movie star", or "that guy with the jeans is like the Bill Gates of Russia".  We were given VIP passes, and Carmen was interviewed by several newspapers and radio shows.  Our video crew interviewed the Governor, the Minister of Culture, and also Mr. Ghelman, the director of the Museum of Modern Art in Perm, who is considered the "father" of the new cultural revolution here.

At the summit all the tents are white (and so are all the people).

Edward, a well known theater director in Perm is a legend in his own mind

Sasha was in his element here - master schmoozer

Carmen and I impersonate Russian rock stars in the press room

The Governor is a very charismatic person, and a man of the people.  He is not a member of the ruling party, and he dresses in jeans, always flies economy class, and reminds me a bit of Bill Clinton in his gregariousness.  His initiative is a bold one - he has decided to put 6% of the state's budget into culture and the arts, with the goal of making Perm the cultural center of Russia.  His theory is that if you invest in the arts, and make a city a great place to live because of its culture, that private investment in businesses, stores, restaurants, will follow, and the city will grow and flourish because people will want to move there and the quality of life will make people want to stay there.  The economy will grow and there will be more employment from the new businesses and institutions. So far, from what we see in Perm, it seems to be working.  The city is definitely under renewal - there is construction everywhere -and the number of amazing cultural activities for free or cheap rivals most US cities. The initiative is of course controversial, and conservatives complain that the money should be spent directly on infrastructure and services, or given directly to businesses rather than cultural institutions (sound familiar?).

The Governor of Perm region - he came to our concert!

The Minister of Culture checks out our CD "Eternal"

Sasha has a different tailor than the other summit attendees

Carmen compliments a passing diplomat

The world media were represented here

In the US, by comparison, most arts budgets for states is less than 1%. At the turn f the last century, cities like New York and Boston made similar investments into cultural institutions, and those are now still with us - the symphonies, museums, theaters. The difference was in the US it was mostly private money, while in Perm, it is money spent by the government.  I think the initiative will work, and it is a bold experiment worth following. Oh yeah, and our concert is part of it.  We recently discovered that the government is subsidizing the ticket prices, so people can buy tickets for about $6 each to our show.  In addition, high school and college students from all over the country have been bussed and flown into Perm to be able to experience the varied shows of the festival and then return to their home towns to spread the news about what's new in the arts. I am at a loss to think of an equivalent program in the US of this magnitude.  At a time when many European countries and the US are deleting arts from their budgets, it is amazing to see the opposite happening in what was once a grey, forbidding industrial city called Molotov.

The video team interview Ghelman, the "godfather" of the Perm Cultural revolution

Gelman wears cool glasses he may have borrowed from Elton John

Carmen & I found the free press brunch - and it was excellent!
I knew those press passes would come in handy.