Of all the things a person could do in 1983-get heavy into legwarmers, write a bestseller about coke-snorting stockbrokers, whatever-forming an avant-garde Russian rock band ranked very, very low on the advisable-activities list. Soviet authorities...well, they took a dim view. After all, Marx said very little about how jazz fusion/folk/psychedelic/punk/performance art might help build True Socialism.
A bunch of artsy Leningrad boys decided they didn't care. More than 20 years later, Auktyon-the band they formed and, arguably, built into Russia's most critically acclaimed-has outlasted both the old regime and its home city's old name. In Russia, Auktyon is famous for its absurdist stage show, blue-hot musical intensity, fearless genre-splicing and slavishly devoted fans. In a place where entire geopolitical systems have gone to die, this band endures as a godfatherly influence on a whole rock nation.
"Life in Russia is so dynamic that sometimes you are surprised that certain events happened just a few years ago," writes saxophonist Nikolai Rubanov, the nine-member band's designated English speaker, in an email. "We just played our music, and at some point realized that young musicians had started to address us as 'mister,' and...we are being called a 'cult band' and similar bullshit."
Many musicians from former dictatorships would pat themselves on the back, order some zakuski and call it a career. Auktyon is, instead, aiming for virgin territory: you.
The band has toured America several times. With rare exceptions (like a thermonuclear performance at Portland's North by Northwest festival in 2000), Auktyon's U.S. shows have been marketed exclusively to Russian-speaking immigrants. Almost all major metros now have ex-Soviet communities big enough to fill theater-sized venues. And true to cultural stereotype, your expat Russian rock fan tends to harbor a serious nostalgic streak-and has no problem shelling out high ticket prices when big names from the homeland call.
It's a living. But Auktyon-an artistically restless circus featuring tuba, guitar, keyboards, sax, multiple percussionists and one member, the fan-adored Oleg Garkusha, credited for "declamation"-is bored.
"During such concerts, on many occasions I had a feeling that we don't even need to do anything," Rubanov writes. "It's enough just to stand there, and the audience will be raving just to have the beloved band on stage."
So on its current nine-date U.S. tour, the band is intentionally downsizing its venues to target the natives. In New York, Auktyon will play Joe's Pub and the Knitting Factory, two of Manhattan's most high-profile, boutique clubs. The Portland show, at Dante's, presents cultural paradox of full-lunar-eclipse rarity: A band that's as iconic as the Sex Pistols and as revered as the Grateful Dead in its homeland will play a down-'n'-dirty club show, with all the up-close-and-crazy potential that implies.
And in those cozy confines, Auktyon is certain to blow a few americanski minds.
Call it rock's Jackboot Principle: In countries where playing weird music is still actually a form of rebellion-rather than just one option of many in the great lifestyle buffet line-the best bands show very little regard for music's so-called rules. Genres? Song length? Verse, chorus, verse? Mere distractions for Auktyon, with its wild mini-symphonies drawing on Russian folk, avant-jazz and some of the 1960s' more glassy-eyed moments.
Lead singer Leonid Fedorov is something of a Leonard Cohen-style heartthrob, all husky, romantic intonation and lyrical poetry. (Not that you'll understand a word.) It's tempting to concoct more elaborate analogies ("If Herbie Hancock had a Russian grandfather and jammed with Black Sabbath and the Barnum & Bailey band...") to describe the band behind him. Let's just say an exceedingly unusual mind-meld awaits.
"In Portland in 2000, there were very few people who spoke Russian," Rubanov writes of Auktyon's previous visit. "But the mutual understanding was established.... It's even more interesting to perform before the audience whose musical experience radically differs from the experiences of Russian audiences. We are alien, we are from the outside. We represent a different world, in terms of music as well."
Auktyon plays with Kultur Shock Saturday, April 30, at Dante's, 1 SW 3rd Ave., 226-6630. 9:30 pm. $10. 21+.