Elvis – in Moscow !

Welcome once again from good old Russia ! A country with a thriving rock’n’roll culture and some truly great rockin’ bands. And this month, Dear Readers, we will continue with the story of one of them. Last month we began the tale of “Elvis on Tour”, a brilliant group playing in the style of the King himself, Elvis Presley. This month Masha May, the band’s manager and keyboard player, carries on the story of the band. Over to you, Masha:

Elvis on Tour celebrated its first birthday this spring. As a starting point to the story let me take you back to our first rehearsal, where we gathered all together – Dima Akmatov (vocals), Yura Saveliev (bass), Kolya Denisov (drums), Murat Mamizhev (guitar) and yours truly. Dima, Yura and Kolya, along with another guitarist Max, had previously made up a 4-piece Beatles tribute band, that had successfully performed until the end of 2022, when Max moved to Georgia (but still retains links with our band). “We faced a dilemma,” Dima says, “either to look for another George Harrison or to try something new. At the same time I discovered the western Elvis tribute scene and realised there was no such a project in Russia yet. We discussed it and decided to do something really unique and cool in our country. That’s how the idea of Elvis on Tour was born”.

So during the Spring of 2023 Murat and I joined the three guys and thus completed the final line-up of the band. I’d be eager to tell you a long and sentimental story of how I first played with them, but it was just five minutes long ! Our first rehearsal lasted no more than five minutes. All because I was returning to Moscow from another city, through Sheremetyevo airport which is on the other end of the city, e.g. 50km of traffic jams. Despite the long way and heavy luggage I still made it, for those five remaining minutes. Dima said they all were sure after this extra short meeting that I would never come back. But in my mind I had decided, “I will definitely come back and stay.” And so it proved. By now, however, I manage to come to rehearsals a little earlier than 5 minutes before the end and I carry a synthesizer with me instead of the luggage bag, but for the rest my attitude and enthusiasm haven’t changed. 

Before Murat joined the band, a Girl named Masha (just like me) played lead guitar but soon left the band. We joke that the Universe had gotten confused, bringing the wrong Masha to the guys, but quickly found out and fixed its mistake.

Each member of the band (we call ourselves Elvitians) complements the whole like a pieces in a puzzle. This becomes possible thanks to our different personal experience and musical background. For example, Murat, who has been playing Elvis for 10 years (from his first performances with the Armavir rock’n’roll band “Vegas”), praises such legends as Ronnie James Dio, Freddie Mercury, Ritchie Blackmore, Jon Lord and Ian Gillan among his musical heroes. Dima, in addition to the Beatles and Elvis, also used to listen to alternative and indie such as Mac Demarco, Tame Impala, Blur, Oasis, Radiohead and Fur.

My personal music preferences are mostly influenced by rock’n’roll, classic rock, blues and jazz. One of my first music-related memories is of a five-year-old me and my Dad walking out of a music shop. I wondered why he bought a whole pack of identical – dark blue, with a big yellow saxophone – vinyl records. I couldn’t read yet and didn’t know that the names of the performers on the records were, of course, different. One more vivid memory from that time is how a girl next door and I take out of the closet a specially stored 1 sq.m. of particularly slippery linoleum carpet and ask my father: “Daddy, turn on the rockin’ roll!” (that’s exactly how we pronounced it). My Dad then played the record “Twist and Shout” for us. This was due to my love for dancing, that I came later to perform. My lindy hop coach once invited me to join their small jazz band, they rehearsed in the attic of the same building where we trained. When I recall those days the song Sunny Side Of the Street performed by Dizzy Gillespie comes to my mind.

Our drummer Kolya comes from an incredibly musical family. “My grandmother”, he says, “used to play the violin, she graduated from the famous Gnessin musical Institute. She met my grandfather in the orchestra, he was a trombonist. My aunt was a solfeggio teacher. My mother took lessons from L. I. Maslennikova who was a soloist of the Bolshoi Theatre. But there’ve been no drummers in the family before me”.

Yura, apart from playing bass, arranges all the backing vocal parts for us, thanks to his absolute hearing and extensive choral experience. He is fond of classical music and plays it perfectly on the piano: “Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Chopin had a major influence on me,” Yura says, “As for the other musical styles, then I’d probably name Abba and, of course, the Beatles, who I have loved since I was a child. Moreover, I think one of the most significant moments in the history of Russian rock’n’roll was when the Beatles’ music reached the USSR”.

I know, Richard, you won’t like this passage because you’re not a fan of the Liverpool Four, but I have to admit: It was the Beatles who had a big impact on our musical preferences. “I got into rock’n’roll at the age of 12 when I heard the song ‘Help’,” Dima recalls, “By that time I was already playing in my first school band, the director taught me how to play it on the piano and I sang it at our debut concert”. 

Kolya continues: “My main influence and number one band is The Beatles. Ringo Starr was my main inspiration, thanks to whom at the age of 14 I just became obsessed with learning to play drums.”

For me personally, the Beatles are also close and familiar since childhood – their music often sounded in our house. I once pinched my parent’s book of Beatles’ lyrics and guitar chords; I’d never held a guitar in my hands before, but nevertheless, with great interest (yet with even greater difficulty) I finally figured out how to play ‘Can’t buy me love’ and ‘She loves you’. I still wonder why they didn’t teach us something like that in piano classes instead of monotonous exercises, that seemed absolutely useless to me at that time. And yes, I envy Dima, whose music director was in tune with him. I think if all kids were given the chance to play what they really liked in the moment, there would be much less sad stories about being discouraged for years in learning to play.

This raises the legitimate question of how it happens that young people love the music of an era they never lived in. I asked Lisa Lee, an 18-year-old Elvis Presley fan who we have seen at every Elvis on Tour show since our first performance. “I love the music of the 1950s to 1970s, because only there I hear that very special character of melody, rhythm, real live voices, which are very often lacking with modern performers,” explained Lisa, “Most of all I am fond of rock’n’roll – Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and others. But my lifetime love is of course the King, Elvis Presley ! It was due to him that my love for the songs of that whole era began. Elvis is a unique musician with an enormous charisma, hardly comparable to any other artist. If a time machine existed, first of all I would go on a musical journey from the 50s to the 70s!”

“Quality tribute projects make a major contribution to the preservation of world music history,” says Dima, “Every great personality has a story, that is carried through the years by generations. When young musicians arrange songs with love and respect and then bring a spectacular show on stage, this not only fuels the interest of existing fans, but also helps to engage new and often young audiences and get them interested in the work of a particular performer. At the same time,” Dima continues, “I think real success comes only to those who do not stop at what they have achieved. Okay you can play real cool music for 20 years. But if you always do it in the same way, without any special concept, you can’t expect any great success. It is important to be able to change something, work hard and move forward”.

Elvis on Tour’s concept is the historical authenticity of the Elvis show, because no one but us does this in Russia. For instance, we have three sets in our repertoire now, divided by era; Elvis of the 1950s, his Hollywood period of the 1960s and the flashy 1970s. For each part of the concert we have several stage images and custom costumes of the epoch and we play the songs in the arrangements and tonalities as they were performed by Elvis in that specific period. Thus we sometimes do 2 or more different versions of the same song. Our repertoire includes not only well known hits, but also rare compositions that had never been performed live in our country. We also have a lot of ideas and plans, to be released in the future. It’s incredibly interesting to do such exclusive things and it’s extremely gratifying that the audience can really appreciate it !

Thankyou, Masha ! The above is another example of the huge rock’n’roll legacy of Elvis Presley, nearly 50 years after his death. Elvis’ story is like an Ancient Greek Tragedy, with all the highs and lows that entails. This includes flaws in Elvis’ character, which ultimately brought about his downfall. But like the Ancient Greek Heroes, his talent and charisma rose to the level of the Gods ! 

Stay tuned folks, for another rockin’ story next month !