Live Review: Vulgargrad

11 February 2016 | 2:11 pm | Rhys Anderson

"'Hey, let go! I'm not dead, I'm just drunk!' Polish actor Jacek Koman (also Vulgargrad's lead singer) announces."

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"Hey, let go! I'm not dead, I'm just drunk!" Polish Australian actor Jacek Koman (also Vulgargrad's lead singer) announces. It seems the Russian underground have taken over and seven musicians, dressed in horizontal striped tops and flat caps, begin to sing. All play an instrument and all sing, except for one. Koman, their inimitable leader, fronts the ensemble with his smoky, gruff vocals soaked, rinsed and soaked again (in vodka and coffee). Backing Koman are two horns, an electric guitar, accordion and an instrument somewhat unfamiliar to Australian audiences; the balalaika, a triangle-shaped wooden instrument that's similar in size to a double bass.

Vulgargrad have a ferocious sound and quality to their music that makes them instantly likeable and, though fewer than a dozen English words are scattered throughout the set's almost two hours, the audience is completely engaged. Koman teaches us a dance; two steps to the right, two to the left, one to the front and then four half-steps back. Not only does almost every person in the room follow his lead but the dance is kept up for the entirety of a five-minute song. The band sing in the Russian language about the criminal culture of Russia and Australia throughout the 20th century. Borrowed from traditional music and musical comedies, the tracks are wonderfully paced with an infectious rhythm that makes hours of dancing feel like mere minutes.

Koman imbibes influences from the slow, sinister mobster to the giddy, drunk fool and his transformations onstage are mesmerising and often comic. This consummate professional is famous for always delivering, but tonight it's the trumpet player turn to shine. Perhaps an act (it can be hard to tell with Vulgargrad), perhaps by accident, the trumpet player starts the night by sharing an unlabelled 700ml bottle of clear liquid with the singer.

An hour in, and after a short break, the band returns to the stage dressed as stereotypical modern, Eastern European gangsters in matching Adidas tracksuits. Drunk, the trumpet player stumbles. Playing with instrument in one hand and a beer in the other, he can't stop laughing and has a distinctly unsteady stance. Super Good is so good it's almost criminal. Vulgargrad is as much about the performance, and wonderful Russian folk music, as it is a bunch of talented Melbourne musicians celebrating their heritage.

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