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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Stranglers Grab Hold of Moscow Punk Scene

They may be old-timers, but England's The Stranglers, the granddaddies of punk, proved in Moscow that they are not has-beens.


The stars of a punk celebration over the weekend, the group left the audience at the Gorbunov Club euphoric. In a program that was tight and straightforward, with a comfortable mix of old and new offerings, ranging from the classics "Always the Sun" and "Golden Brown" to singles such as "Valley of the Birds" from their newest album, The Stranglers had the packed house jumping and screaming.


Many in the crowd hadn't been born when "the men in black" began performing 20 albums and more than two decades ago.


Formed in 1974, The Stranglers have demonstrated a longevity and resilience that most groups would envy. While the years have left their mark on the band members' 40-something faces, the musicians nonetheless displayed a vigor and enthusiasm that mirrors their approach to music. At the same time, the experience of 23 years has given the band members an ease with themselves that was evident in the fun they had on stage, the time they devoted to fans and the press after the concert and their relaxed manner before the gig.


What wasn't relaxed, however, was their schedule. Fresh from a tour of North America and the United Kingdom in support of their recently released album, "Written in Red," they flew into Moscow on Thursday, and after a speedy city tour and the concert Friday night, were off to Dublin for the next gig and then back to London.


At the Moscow performance it was clear that the band had not suffered from changing lead singers. Paul Roberts replaced the original Strangler lead singer, Hugh Cornwell, in 1990. Three albums later, the band appears to be a cohesive, tightly knit entity. Roberts is reminiscent of Iggy Pop, older but with a presentation of focused power that comes out in both his onstage acrobatics and strong vocals. These qualities are what help enable The Stranglers to slip between old and new material so smoothly.


It has been this varied composition that has always set The Stranglers apart from mainstream punk classification and enabled them to straddle many genres with ease. Greenfield's keyboard work was up to the mark, and it was a pleasure to hear the signature Stranglers sound of rocking guitars fused with psychedelic organ.


Commenting on his selection as Cornwell's replacement, Roberts said in a pre-concert interview: "I presented it as a done deal at the audition, saying simply, 'I'm your new lead singer.'" Roberts' brash attitude apparently impressed The Stranglers, as well as his vocal range and experience with a variety of bands in England.


Original Stranglers Jean-Jacques ("J.J.") Burnel on bass and Jet Black on drums turned in solid performances Friday, while guitarist John Ellis helped keep the kids in the crowd hopping in appreciative ecstasy. A classically trained guitarist turned bassist, Burnel plays his instrument more like a guitar, grinding and posing and stirring up the crowd -- his endurance no doubt honed by his years of training in martial arts.


"Always happy to come to a new place," Burnel said of Moscow. "We played Prague and Budapest in '94, so have some feeling for Eastern Europe and the underground music scene that existed there."


Asked about current band favorites, the affable Greenfield voiced respect for America's Green Day, with its raw energy and clever song-writing ability. But asked what bands the group goes to hear, Greenfield replied: "Well, it's like the concept of the bus driver's holiday," meaning that the last thing a band might want to do on its days off is listen to other bands.


The weekend punk celebration also included The Toy Dolls and a number of Russian acts. But it was clearly The Stranglers' evening.


"It was great to see them, especially here in Russia," said Va Bank singer and Radio Maximum host Alexander Skliar. "I've listened to them for years." Skliar himself is known for his own ability to take tradition and stand it on its head, frequently combining folk and punk elements, and it was The Stranglers' mixes and experiments that he admired most.


Ultimately, this was The Stranglers' biggest contribution to the Moscow festival: to show old fans and new the potential for both traditional and alternative rock music.


The festival atmosphere at the Gorbunov, a beautiful old hall that is both elegant and intimate, resembled the hippyish side of rock almost as much as it did the punk. Black-garbed, spiky-haired teens mingled with 30-somethings in a party atmosphere marked by anticipation for the main act. Many paid scant attention to the opening bands, locals NaiV and St. Petersburg's Korol y Shut, preferring instead to warm up in the surrounding park or in the downstairs bar area. Some simply wandered in and out of the hall while the openers performed, catching a few tunes by the better-known NaiV and the up-and-coming St. Petersburgers.


Lena, Tanya and Lyosha had seen NaiV on a number of occasions in Moscow. "They're definitely unusual for Moscow," Lena said. "Most innovative bands in Russia are based in St. Petersburg, so it's always been good to have NaiV here in Moscow." High school students Igor and Svetlana explained their own interest in the festival: "Basically we're fans of unusual, experimental musicians, like Germany's Einst--rzende Neubauten or St. Petersburg's NOM," Igor explained.


"These newer punk groups are also trying to do something different from what's normal." NaiV, for example, plays an unusual combination of punk and funk.


The organization of a two-day punk-oriented festival and its success must be praised. Russia is starved for solid-name international talent, and while a number of enthusiastic, innovative Russian bands have made the transition from the Soviet era -- and others have taken root since -- the country is ultimately dominated by both domestically produced and internationally exported pop with doggerel for lyrics and programmed synths for melody. The Stranglers brought welcome respite from this unfortunate scene. After a 90-minute set, the band came back for two encores., the classic favorites "Duchess" and "No More Heroes."