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REVIEW: Across Russia by Stage

Eric Walberg (reviewer) — November 1984

Stringband. Toronto: live concert tape of Sept. 1983 Russian tour. $8.00.

“Good evening, dear friends. The Ministry of Culture’s Gosconcert of the USSR brings to your attention the vocal and instrumental ensemble Stringband of Canada. This group uses all manner of instruments from guitars to wooden spoons. Welcome Stringband !”

With this introduction (in Russian), Stringband begins their latest album — a live concert tape of their September, 1983, tour of the Soviet Union. What would it be like to hear a concert of Canadian folk music in Kiev? Across Russia by Stage gives you a tantalizing hint. This is the first time since Perth County Conspiracy’s Breakout to Berlin that a Canadian group has used a peace theme in an East-West context as a recording format, and it is surprisingly successful.

Some of the material appears on earlier recordings. Two of the cuts are from Marie-Lynn Hammond’s fine solo. album Vignettes which was released earlier this year.

Seven of the cuts are new to the group and are all first-rate. “Refuse the Cruise” they took to show the Soviet audiences that “not everybody in Canada wanted to see the new weapons in Europe.” It describes the testing of the cruise as “our NATO dues” and expresses concern that “the finger on the trigger is you-know-whose.” The virtuoso fiddle work and the biting lyrics are truly inspired, and left Canadian diplomatic officials in Moscow squirming in their seats.

All of the new material reflects a thoughtful attempt to bridge the gulf separating our cultures. “Hopak,” a traditional Russian tune, is given a spirited arrangement by Calvin Cairns. “What Can One Woman Do”, a quiet and powerful work by Bob Bossin, and “Oh How Happy I Am” are sung in English and Russian.

Since the all-time favourite western group in the Soviet Union is the Beatles (the earlier the better), and since String band was mistakenly billed on their tour as a country and western band, they put together a country version of the Lennon/ McCartney “I’ve Just Seen a Face.” They include an excerpt to start off side II. They also include Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya”, and close side II with a popular Soviet recording of the same, a zany tribute to ‘East-meets-West.’

The album is Stringband at their best — their excitement at the opportunity to help break down the Cold War barrier shines through despite some minor technical problems. The album should be available at Sam’s or The Record Pedlar in Toronto, or for $8.00 from Mama B, 324 St: Clements Ave., Toronto M4R lH5.