Moscow’s Live Music Scene

Hugh Gatenby

A lover of live music in pubs and clubs, ‘professional barfly’ Hugh Gatenby (his words) pursues his twin passions of pubs and music in Moscow – with his sketch book for company (editor).

Tell me one more time, just so's I'll understand, 
Are you sure Hank done it this way?
Did ol' Hank really do it this way?
Jazzy Christmas – with the Masala Quartet

So opines Country and Western legend Waylon Jennings in his paean to fellow Nashville legend, Hank Williams. This answer to this eternal question is alas no, he probably didn’t. But had Hank Williams been Russian – well, who knows. Musicians who are decidedly one hundred percent Russian (the bass player Misha’s twenty year sojourn in Detroit notwithstanding) and who definitely do things their way, are the four-piece Raw Cats 88, led by their charismatic and permanently Stetson-hatted keyboardist (‘Russia’s Elvis’) Valeri Setkin. An outstanding cover band, with their mix of Rockabilly, Country and Rhythm & Blues, they unfailingly burn down the house at every performance. Indeed, their maxim, emblazoned on the band’s logo, in Russian is Bay posudu, zhgi kabak (‘Smash the crockery, and rip this joint’) Well, quite. Consummate musicians and complete hooligans that they are.

Born hooligans. The Raw Cats greeting the New Year

I’ve long been a fan of live music gigs at home; ‘home’ being a quiet corner of rural, Suffolk, England. So, arriving in Moscow a short while ago, I was eager to see what this sprawling megapolis would have to offer, particularly in the way of pub music – pubs and cafes being my other distractions. It didn’t take long for my love affair with the Moscow live music scene to begin.

While waiting for the lift outside my apartment, I would often pause in the corridor, sometimes letting the lift go by, and listen to the strains of tender acoustic piano wafting out from the neighbouring flat. I would idly wonder who this talented piano player was – behind the heavy door and security grill. One night, returning late back to the flat, I found myself sharing a lift going to the same floor, with a small, extremely beautiful young woman, who was dwarfed by the massive electronic keyboard which she was hefting on her back. Ah, the mystery piano-player. This accidental meeting in the lift was my first acquaintance with Anya, actually a doctor by training, and also keyboardist of the superlative Masala Quartet; one of Russia’s leading jazz combos. Since then I’ve become almost a  groupie of the ‘Masalas’, though I didn’t, ala,s follow them to the All-Russia Jazz Championships in Sochi, where they were runners up for Russia’s ‘Best Jazz Quartet’ award. Not bad.

Rock riffs and skirling pipes. Celtic fusion

My friendship with Anya led me to meet her musical alter ego (maybe she’s got several) also as a keyboard player, comprising one third of the wonderful Celtic-fusion outfit Tullach Ard led by her friend fellow medic Igor Pilbroch; a paediatrician in Moscow’s Children’s Hospital No. 6 – and bagpipe player par excellence.  Skirling pipe music at point blank range in O’Connell’s Pub (or indeed anywhere else) can however be a bit bracing. One could see why, having finally subdued the Scottish Highlands, the British army was eager to co-opt Scottish pipers into its service, forming fearsome pipe bands. 

And then there are the wonderful Sunny Side Singers, best described as a variety act, who seem to cover everything from Gospel to Beatles. Among the their number is the preternaturally tall, Oleg Forski. A ski and snowboard instructor; he is also Russia’s undisputed Johnny Cash. When not being a Russian ‘Man in Black’, Oleg is quietly-spoken and friendly, and is most unlikely to have “shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die”. But he certainly sings a magnificent  Folsom Prison Blues.

Jazz, Celtic Folk, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Gospel Choir, Flamenco – I could go on. This town’s got it all. I seriously wonder if there are other European capitals that embrace such a range and cultural mish-mash (I believe ‘fusion’ is the term musicians like to use) of music in small, private venues. 

Russian Caledonians

I will now let the pictures do the talking. I try and capture something of the atmosphere of these occasions, from the raw, impassioned energy of Flamenco, the soaring vocals of Globus Music in St Andrew’s Anglican Church, to the sheer hooliganism of the Raw Cats 88 in Bunker 47. 

Shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. Hope not

It’s all here, in Moscow. Let’s rock.

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