Russians Hack Chicago!


Leonid and Friends

How a group of Russian musicians show their love for a classic-rock staple from the 70’s.

Its time for a little fun. If you are older, you remember an epic band called Chicago. They gained a reputation for being a soft-rock staple of the early seventies. Kind of a bland horn-band to back up Peter Cetera, one of their pop-star front men. This is the most unkind description that I can think of, and not my opinion at all.

Chicago, for a time, owned the American top 40 pop charts, and the original band members created original music that has been folded into the fabric of our culture. They had, and still have millions of fans, who love their music more than ever.

Over time, the general population of music lovers tired of Chicago. There was a serious case of heavy rotation radio overplay during their heyday, and in those days, AM car radios and cheap boom-boxes really couldn’t do justice to the complexity and subtlety of the arrangements that they created, not to mention the absolute virtuosity of their players. It was all a pleasant “wall of sound” creation that served as background to all of our lives in the malaise-ridden, drug-addled 70’s.

I have rediscovered the music of Chicago through a tribute band from an unlikely place: Moscow, Russia. Yes, Leonid and Friends is a band formed by bassist and audio engineer and producer Leonid Vorobyev, and you can find much of their musical product on YouTube here:

The tech angle, (and make no mistake, I am just indulging myself here with a bit of fun about something that has captured my fancy), is that they have followed the example of Pomplamoose in publishing “video songs”, which show all of the parts being played on the instruments used in real-time. Kind of a “look-ma-no-hands” mode of musical presentation which is original to YouTube and online video. These days, much of the music that I enjoy, I “watch” on YouTube, partly because it is available there for free, and partly because there is this added benefit of an edited, visible performance. On-demand music videos that aren’t stupid movie shorts for tweens.

So how do they do? I regard their performances as very much comparable to the original Chicago recordings, and make no mistake, Chicago was an awesome band. The horn section was a match for the best of James Brown or Tower of Power, and the arrangements were deft and intricate. Having been a wind player, I watch the horn section that Leonid has assembled with amazement. The trumpet player, Andrey Zyl, looks like his neck is going to explode, but they are as tight and smooth as the original band was, if not more so.

The beauty of the “video song” mode of performance is that it shows all the parts being played when featured. Technically, Pomplamoose’s mode of presentation was very different from Leonid and Friends, using overlaid video montages and background clips that portrayed design and assembly of their many synthesizers and synthesized instruments. Leonid and Friends do straight-up studio recordings with head-phones and sound-damping barriers between the different sections of the ensemble. There are enough cameras that everyone gets a turn on-screen during their featured moments. This detailed video capture and editing serves to show you just how many parts are being played, and how well they are playing together. Really, the vocal performances alone are worth the watch, with a special shout out to Vasilii Akimov, who absolutely shreds “I’m a man”; Sergey Kashirin, who plays lead guitar like he was born with the instrument in his hand, and takes lead vocal on several songs; the Ukrainian Serge Tiagniryadno, who covers Cetera’s counter-tenor on songs like “If You Leave Me Now”, and “25 or 6 to 4”; and the stunning Ksenia Buzina who floats her soprano above it all when the ensemble sings.

But, perhaps the best part of all in watching Leonid and Friends play these beloved chestnuts is the look on their faces as they accomplish their work. Every one of them is a picture of joy almost the entire way through each song, and when they finish, well they look like they could all use a cigarette. It is so much fun to watch such great musicians re-create a work that none of them was ever able to see performed by the original Chicago, and Leonid has created all of the arrangements by ear from listening to his record collection. This is truly miraculous, and a reason to hope for friendship between peoples. No doubt, an American band and their music is beloved wholeheartedly by this group of Russians (and a Ukrainian). Of that there can be no doubt.