The Russians have landed!

 

Nick Krewen

GRAMMY.COM

March 2003

Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchiakovsky the news: The Russians have landed!

While recent breakthroughs of controversial Moscow pop duo t.A.T.u. and Grammy nominated country sextet Bering Strait may not be as prevalent as the British invasion that first introduced The Beatles, the message that North America is finally open for business is resonating throughout the former U.S.S.R..

And that gives new hope for Russian artists hoping to tap into a potentially lucrative new market, says Bering Strait’s Ilya Toshinsky.

“Maybe t.A.T.u and Bering Strait will be part of the movement that’s going to change the face of Russian show business,” says Toshinsky, the multi-faceted guitarist and banjo player who grew up with his fellow band members in the scientific community of Obininsk, 60 miles west of Moscow.

“There are a lot of talented artists and writers in Russia who don’t get the chance for exposure. I’d like to help them out eventually. There are a lot of artists there who need to be heard.”

Whether any of those artists — ranging from ‘NSYNC-like popsa hitmakers Na-Na and gender-bending singer Shura to Enrique Iglesias duet partner Alsou and Parliamentarian Josif Kobozo – will be able to navigate the waters of American consumerism is debatable, but the commercial headway made by t.A.T.u. offers plenty of incentive.

Fueled by high-pitched vocals, pounding electric beats and a racy schoolgirl video supporting the classically trained Lena Katina and Julia Volkova’s hit single “All The Things She Said,” t.A.T.u. has taken the world by storm. Its debut album, 200 km/h In The Wrong Lane, is a heartbeat away from gold in the U.S., and has already sold two-and-a-half million copies around the world – including an unprecedented one million in its native Russia.

The brainchild of Ivan Shapovalov, a former child psychiatrist and advertising executive with a gift for exploiting Lolita lesbianism, t.A.T.u. is only the tip of the iceberg in a country whose population numbers 146 million people.

“I think it could be the beginning of a discovery by the West of Russian talent,” admits Interscope’s Martin Kierzenbaum, the A&R executive responsible for tattooing t.A.T.u. to a North American record deal.

“The impressive aspect of t.A.T.u. is that a band is coming out of Russia and traveling across the world is actually appealing to people on a global scale, something that has never, ever happened in rock music.”

Kierzenbaum credits a post-communist era of liberal expression that has allowed the artistic community to “have one foot in the tradition of Russia and the other foot in MTV culture.”

“Julia and Lena are part of the first generation to have grown up after communism, reach out to the West and beckon us to pay attention. They’re able to communicate some of exoticism and the excitement of Russian talent to us in the West because they speak both languages culturally.

“There are a lot of super-talented people in Russia that we may have been closed off to until now.”

Not that there haven’t been previous attempts to crack the West. While such revered composers as Petr Ilich Tchiakovsky, Modest Mussorgsky and Igor Stravinsky had no problems establishing Russian classical music supremacy, pop acts have largely met Iron Curtain resistance from American audiences.  Despite eight albums and three movies, the stylistically outlandish Leningrad Cowboys largely remain cult favorites, while Boris Grebenshikov, the “Russian Bob Dylan” whose album Radio Silence was given a serious push by Sony in the late ‘80s, failed to gain any lasting foothold.

Even Kiev-born supermodel and actress Milla Jovovich has been ineffective in convincing the market to support her music, although her 1994 effort The Divine Comedy received critical acclaim.

 

The only exception has been Ukrainian émigré Dimitry BrillSuper DJ Dimitry – whose tenure in now-defunct New York disco troika Deee-Lite in 1990 landed him a gold Top 10 hit in “Groove Is In The Heart” and a platinum album in World Clique.

Although he applauds the success of artistic comrades t.A.T.u., Ilya Toshinsky says Bering Strait is taking a decidedly more organic approach to global domination.

With “Bearing Straight” receiving a Grammy nomination last month for Best Country Instrumental Performance and the recent release of a new self-titled CD on Universal South, Toshinsky finally feels some vindication for the decision to relocate from Obininsk to Nashville five years ago.

“If we stayed in Russia to play country music — which was considered exotic — we’d be bound to Moscow bars and restaurants for the rest of our lives,” notes Toshinsky, who co-founded Bering Strait as an instrumental bluegrass band in 1988 before going the country route.

Speaking on behalf of singer Natasha Borzilova, keyboardist Lydia Salnikova, steel guitarist Sasha Ostrovsky, drummer Alexander Arzamastsev and bass player Sergei “Spooky” Olkhovsky, Toshinsky admits Bering Strait’s street of dreams was almost the road to ruin.

After signing with Arista Nashville, Bering Strait decided to follow label president Tim DuBois to his next venture after a downsizing prompted the executive’s departure. It took DuBois five years to land at Universal South, and through the transitional phase Bering Strait signed four contracts.

“For awhile, I didn’t believe the record was ever going to come out,” said Toshinsky, who became infatuated with the banjo at the age of 10 after hearing an Earl Scruggs recording of “Cumberland Gap.”

“ Some of our families started losing faith. And now with the Grammy nomination, and a huge push in Russian media, now they can see what it can be. I think they believe again.”

He’s also happy that band members have a chance to earn a living again.

“The worst time for us was a few months before the MCA deal,” Toshinsky explains. “The money was extremely tight, and with the visa situation  we could only work in the music business. We couldn’t work at K-Mart or Burger King and make any extra money. It got really tough. It was discouraging.”

But with recent appearances on the Grand Ole Opry and a favorable slot on 60 Minutes, Toshinsky is much more optimistic.

“We’re still not making too much money because people in Russia think that with the Grammy nomination, we’re now millionaires,” he says. “Hopefully it will lead to wonderful things.”

Even though t.A.T.u. and Bering Strait are exploring new commercial frontiers, not everyone from the homeland is convinced U.S. success is a good thing.

“The Russian music scene is generally horrendous, just second-rate derivative American pop,” says Mark Ames, editor of eXile, a Moscow-based alternative weekly.

“The only lesson learned is that if you use under-aged lesbian sluts to Trojan Horse your shitty pop music, then you might make it in America.”

 

 

Casino Royale

Casino Royale

Nick Krewen

GRAMMY.COM

March 2003

As the concert business continues its uneven ebb and flow, the casino circuit is continuing to establish itself as an increasingly safe anchor for the touring performer.

Not only is the $25.7 billion casino gaming industry on an upswing — with over 430 commercial establishments operating in the U.S. alone — but many locations outside the seasoned hubs of Las Vegas and Atlantic City are now booking high profile acts as an incentive to increase consumer traffic.

And it seems to be working.

“There’s a marked increase on the revenue we make off our gaming floor on the nights we have concerts,” reports Leslie Herslip, Events Manager for the New Town, North Dakota-based 4 Bears Casino And Lodge.

“I don’t have a percentage figure, but it’s substantial.”

Concert headliners have also proven to be a very effective calling card for casinos located in remote, rural areas.

“You’d be amazed at the number of people willing to travel 75 or 100 miles for quality entertainment,” says Herslip, who has filled her venue’s future calendar with country legend George Jones, classic rock icons Grand Funk and veteran Motown favorites The Commodores.

“It’s a great avenue for us to bring in new people who may not come out here to gamble and expose them to the experience.”

4 Bears isn’t alone in its findings. Casinos across North America are bolstering their bottom line by booking renowned singers, groups and comedians. In turn these renowned singers, groups and comedians are discovering a substantial increase in the demand for their services from on-land, riverside and racetrack gaming houses.

“This market has actually grown pretty rapidly in the last few years, largely because of the growing number of Indian-based casinos,” observes Pollstar Magazine Editor-In-Chief Gary Bongiovanni. “We’ve never done an analysis on it, but I know there are more and more places for artists to play than ever in terms of gaming situations.”

The growth has been phenomenal. Considering the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which legalized gaming operations on reservations in a number of states, wasn’t passed until 1988, the movement has catapulted from an upstart $100 million industry to an $8 billion powerhouse in less than two decades.

Now there are 300-plus Native casinos booking a stylistic gazpacho of established acts, from dancehall reggae veteran Eek-A-Mouse and former Partridge Family heartthrob David Cassidy to rock ‘n roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis and electrifying blues combo Little Charlie And The Nightcats.

The venue is satisfied whether an act sells 2000 tickets or 20 tickets.

“We’re not so concerned that we make a profit off the act itself,” says 4 Bears’ Herslip. “We’re more concerned about making a profit off the gaming floor, making good money on the nights we actually have shows.”

An unexpected benefit, however, is casino circuit compensation for other music business downturns.

“Country acts used to rely heavily on the fair circuit, ” notes Al Schiltz, partner in Nashville-based management firm The Consortium and personal manager of country singers Billy Ray Cyrus and Tammy Cochran.

“But with country music sales suffering, we’ve lost about 20% in the number of venues as a hard ticket sales revenue source. Today fairs are bringing in the Christina Aguileras and older acts like the Three Dog Nights or the demolition derbies instead of country stars.”

Schiltz believes that the casino circuit has filled the void with a winning situation for performers regardless of genre.

“It’s exposure to a market the artist may not normally play to,” says Schiltz, “Usually it isn’t a hard ticket date and the casinos pay well, especially since they use free entertainment as an incentive to expose people to the casino.”

And the long-term benefits?

“The hope is that the people who wouldn’t have initially seen the artist are turned on enough to buy an album and buy a hard ticket to go see them in concert the next time they’re in the area,” Schiltz explains. “It helps build a fan base and there’s not a lot of risk involved.”

Then there’s the pampering. Although his band hasn’t had a blockbuster pop hit since 1978’s “Kiss You All Over” — and hasn’t topped the country charts since 1987’s “I Can’t Get Close Enough” — Exile co-founder J.P. Pennington recently sat in an opulent lounge at Rama, Ontario’s Casino Rama with a big smile on his face.

“The staff here are falling over themselves trying to please you,” said Pennington a few hours prior to the first of two Exile performances.

“Believe me, the accommodations for most gigs aren’t this nice. They actually gave me a suite, and I’m so ridiculously low maintenance.”

Pollstar’s Bongiovanni says the casino circuit provides the perfect forum for nostalgic memory lane bands like Exile.

“All of the acts that are out there touring – whether it’s a Paul Revere And The Raiders, acts like that that pretty well have established names, but no contemporary caché or heat about them, those are environments where they can be successful.”

“The casino circuit has opened up additional opportunities for those acts who are still viable to the consumer, still have a fan base that can draw 1000-1500 people to a venue, and may not have a record deal,” adds Al Schiltz. “It will continue to grow.”

Madonna in Toronto for most ambitious tour yet: review

 

Charismatic singer, 57, puts on physically intense, highly theatrical two-hour show at Air Canada Centre Monday night that shows age is just a number

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Tue Oct 06 2015

Madonna
AIr Canada Centre. Monday, Oct. 5, 2015.

At 57, Madonna is still wears her Rebel Heart on her sleeve.

The provocative Miss Ciccone, who has made a career out of pushing buttons and boundaries, continued to do so during a physically intense, highly theatrical two-hour-and-15-minute show at the Air Canada Centre Monday night.

For the first of two sell-out concerts in front of an adoring crowd of 14,000, the just-christened nominee for the Songwriters Hall of Fame did what she does best — entertain and titillate, with some stunning visuals and a coterie of 20 dancers who often performed breathtaking moves.

After descending from a cage in a costume that resembled an ancient Samurai master for “Iconic,” one of several new tracks showcased from Rebel Heart, her purest pop album in ages, Madonna ultimately transformed into the sassy chameleon that has charmed music fans and concertgoers for over three decades.

With a stage layout that included a portion of the stage that tilted at a 45-degree angle, and a sword-shaped catwalk that extended three-quarters into the venue, with its “hilt” stretching into the wings, Madonna literally transformed herself from warrior, surrounding herself with armour-clad dancers, to rock star — strumming a guitar during a molten re-working of her very first album’s “Burning Up” — to stripping down to a corset and blurring the lines of sex and religion with “Holy Water.”

As female dancers, dressed in nun’s habits, gyrated around sword-shaped poles — including one that balanced the singer on her back in an incredible feat of strength — and later, transformed the famous Last Supper picture into something of an orgy, you could almost feel Pope Francis looking on with disapproval.

But Madonna has never apologized for being naughty and she wasn’t about to do so in Toronto.

After being groped by a dancer throughout “Body Shop” — on a set that resembled an auto body shop, Madonna brought out her ukulele and strummed out an acoustic version of her chaste pop classic “True Blue.”

At one point, she asked the crowd if they were on anti-depressants.

“I have some anti-depressants for you,” she chimed. “Sing and dance. Dance and sing. There are your anti-depressants.”

Madonna also doesn’t settle for simply serving up the hits in an expected manner. Wearing a matador’s costume for “Living For Love,” she kept the flamenco theme going for “La Isla Bonita” and “Dress You Up” (which incorporated brief forays into “Dress You Up” and “Into The Groove”), turning the party into a fiesta where mini-shots of Jose Cuervo were launched into the crowd.

Her fans, some older, some costumed members of the LGBT community, lapped it all up.

No matter what she did, the charismatic singer, songwriter and dancer constantly proved that she has lost none of her edge — even performing a rendition of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose.”

The show wasn’t perfect: the dance she performed during “Like a Virgin” was a bit goofy and unintentionally comical, and there were moments throughout the show where she sang a little flat.

But considering she bookended the Toronto appearances by another pop queen — Taylor Swift — and staged a performance that physically ran circles around her younger competitors, age ain’t nothing but a number as far as Madonna’s concerned.

This is probably the blonde’s most ambitious tour yet, and maybe even her most rewarding.

Madonna in Toronto for most ambitious tour yet: review | Toronto Star

Postscript:  The special guest that Madonna brought to the stage for their “spanking” was Nelly Furtado.