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Global Rhythm, Feature >>

STORY: Marty Lipp PHOTOS: Laura Williams

Like the bastard child of Cosmo Kramer and the Contortions' James Chance, gangly Oleg Garkusha hops and jumps, fluttering his hands like a hummingbird at center stage. All the while, his bandmates in the Russian rock group Auktyon keep him aloft with their fervid rhythms and vertiginous melodies.
The storied Russian band has been making music together for over 25 years, but this is its big American showcase: playing at GlobalFEST, part of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference in New York City. Auktyon played for Russian emigre audiences in the States, but tonight it's time to convert the uninitiated.

The band takes the stage and gives one of its signature shows: a high-powered roller coaster ride through a fun house of distorted harmonies and artfully awkward melodies. Song after song, they rev up to a loopy intensity. Drums and bass provide powerful rhythmic foundation that's prodded along by electric guitar and the bullfrog blasts of tuba and baritone saxophone.
Any American rock fan will immediately try to pigeonhole the band into some kind of mirror-image mold, as if Russia was some Bizarro world with an anti-Beatles and anti-Stones. Is Auktyon the Russian Talking Heads? They formed about the same time as Talking Heads, and if you want to paint them with an extremely unartful broad brush, they are both art-rock. But Auktyon isn't about being tightly wound like David Byrne and company. Auktyon is about screaming, as Garkusha occasionally does, and pushing their rock up every hill in sight as fast as they can, breaking rules instead of splitting atoms for energy. These kids don't use their indoor voices. Auktyon stands firmly in the "rock 'n' roll ain't pretty" camp.

In a recent interview, Garkusha said the band has never been political or, as far as he can tell, particularly Russian. "We're not propagandists," he says. But it's not hard to see the band's explosive not furious like punk, but more Jackson Pollock as a reaction against the gray, oppressive system that Communist Russia had become by the latter half of the 20th century.

Auktyon's music has some echoes of the short-lived No Wave movement of the 1980s, during which musicians like the Contortions played edgy funk that was meant to move your body in paroxysms, rather than smooth moves or Electric Slides. When the core members of Auktyon formed during the reign of Communist leader Leonid Brezhnev, they were just kids building their own instruments and banging around in informal settings; there were no rock clubs or record labels to showcase rock bands. The band became part of Leningrad's underground scene, but in the mid-1980s, clubs opened, notably the Leningrad Rock Club, and Auktyon's popularity took off. Over the years, the band's singer and guitarist, Leonid Fedorov, has emerged as the leader of the group, though he takes somewhat secondary position on stage.
In the early years, the group worked with a visual artist, who helped them stage theatrical concerts, complete with audacious costumes, lighting and set design. For several years, the band included a dancer, Vladimir Veselken, and it has collaborated with Paris-based poet Aleksy Khvostenko, setting his words to music for two alburns. While the group has moved away from elaborate theatrics, it is not hard to imagine them going there again at a moment's notice: at GlobalFEST, one member comes on stage wearing circus-striped pants, brassAeyboard player Dmitry Ozersky is wearing a muscle T-shirt and suspenders that encircle his burly Buddha belly, and Garkusha is wearing white gloves and a jacket with rhinestones outlining the lapels

As the band made its name across a g/asnost-fevered Russia, it was able to travel abroad and develop a following across Europe. It released a steady stream of albums as a group, while the individual members made solo discs and ventured into other media. The band appeared in several films, and Garkusha was a featured actor in two others. Along with the sanctioned output, multiple bootlegs of the band's shows have emerged. Garkusha says he has his own collection of Auktyon albums, bought up whenever he spotted a street pirate hawking them at a kiosk. Auktyon's American debut, Pioneer, will be released by Circular Moves on August 29. Asked what has held all the members together for over 20 years, Garkusha says, "The energy we all feel during a concert brings us together."
Garkusha initially worked with the band as a sound engineer. In the mid '80s, he joined Auktyon onstage and has been the visual focus and secondary vocalist ever since. In performance, he's impossible to ignore, like a TV in a dark room. He is not a dancer of great style and finesse, but he has his own type of tight-footed grace. He cuts a figure somewhere between Ed Norton and a Beckett character, with his long legs extended four inches past the end of his baggy pants, and white socks and black shoes completing the picture. Throughout each tune, he relentlessly shakes some kind of handheld percussion instrument, frequently a tambourine or a cabasa. As the band's music revs up to its next inevitable crescendo, Garkusha steps to the mike and lets out a sustained shriek or riddles the music with a burst of nonsense syllables.

The band's lyrics are often more Dada than deep. Choosing words for sound or resonance more than literal meaning, Auktyon creates songs whose meanings are open-ended. Even Garkusha, when asked to explain a particular song that he describes as a personal favorite, says he is unable to explain its meaning.
It's been said that to understand Russia, you have to use your heart more than your head. Similarly, Auktyon's music short-circuits any intellectual distancing and goes for the the volcanic magma of the restless soul that urgently needs rise up.  05/01/06
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