Friday, November 15, 2019

Two Worlds, One Dream: American Writer and Russian Rocker Share Lifelong Passion for the Music of Chicago


From Russia With Love: Leonid & Friends - The World's #1 Chicago Tribute Band
Growing up in the American Midwest in the early 1970’s, I developed an almost preternatural passion for Chicago, the rock band with horns whose dynamic, melodic songs resonated with me and made me want to become a musician and songwriter. Meanwhile, at the very same time, on the other side of the globe, Leonid Vorobyev was making the same musical discovery.

But in his hometown of Chita, a city in Eastern Russia affectionately known as the “Gateway to Siberia,” the options for musicians were limited. There was very little access to the outside world. There were no record stores. No guitar stores. No rock and roll on TV or on the radio. In fact, there wasn't a single electric guitar for sale in the vicinity. 

"In the Soviet Union in the 1970’s, American popular music was hard to come by," Leonid says. "You had to search for it."

But fate dealt Leonid a hand when a rock band from Moscow arrived in Chita one day to perform a rare local concert. Leonid attended, of course, and afterward introduced himself to the musicians.

“The drummer was a nice guy and asked me if I wanted to hear some cool records,” Leonid says. “He told me to come over to the hotel where the band was staying the next morning at 8 a.m., and he said 'bring your tape recorder' so that I could record the music and enjoy it.”

Leonid did not have to be asked twice. The next morning, he arrived at the hotel and proceeded to spend the day listening to and recording a bunch of rock songs of that era, including the first three albums from Chicago. At that time Chicago was one of the most popular bands in the world, but virtually unknown in Russia.

“Chicago was the drummer’s favorite band,” Leonid recalls, “We listened to each of those albums from start to finish. By the end of the day I was overwhelmed with all this music. It was this small window of opportunity for me to hear and record these songs.”

That day cemented Leonid’s resolve to pursue a career in music and learn how to play electric guitar. With no guitars in sight, he decided to build his own electric guitar from scratch.

“I found a copy of Popular Science magazine that explained how to make an electric guitar, complete with sketches,” Leonid explains. “In Russia in those days, if you were a musician you had to work really hard to get what you wanted. You really had to love it.”

Leonid found success in the music business. He spent 25 years as a music producer, arranger and session musician for a Moscow music studio. He also paid his dues playing in several casual rock bands in Russia.

His pet project, Leonid & Friends, a Chicago tribute band, gigged in and around Moscow. But it was no easy task to create a Chicago tribute band in a country that had very little awareness of the band.

Even in Moscow, finding horn players who could tackle rock, jazz and rhythm and blues was difficult. He managed to assemble a group of stellar musicians. But they were only performing sporadically, and while the word of mouth was good, they were not breaking any box-office records in Russia. No one in the band had any idea what was about to happen.

About five years ago, as Leonid approached his 60th birthday, Leonid decided to bring the band together in the studio to record just one Chicago song. His choice was “Brand New Love Affair (Part I and II),” which starts as a slow jam then builds into a rocker. It happens to be my favorite song from the Chicago VIII album in 1975.

“It was just a gift I gave to myself,” says Leonid, who worked long hours on the song so that it sounded just like the original recording. Leonid’s painstaking attention to every musical detail was both inspiring for his band mates and exhausting.

During the recording session, Leonid decided to film an in-studio video of the band recording and performing the song. 

“I didn’t think anyone would ever see it, I wasn’t sure that anyone in America wanted to see a bunch of guys from Russia playing Chicago songs,” says Leonid, who also plays bass and piano, sings lead and backing vocals, transcribes all the musical sources, and produces, mixes, and masters all audio and video productions.

Much to the band’s surprise, the “Brand New Love Affair” video got a very warm reception. Just two weeks after it debuted online, the video was on Chicago’s website, which no one on the band expected.

People can criticize the Internet all they want, but in this situation it made the world a little smaller and more attainable for Leonid, who naturally decided to do a second video.

“I said ‘Okay, let’s record ‘Make Me Smile’,” says Leonid of the brassy powerhouse classic that is arguably Chicago’s signature song. And the rest is history. Both videos went viral.

Leonid’s unwavering love for music had finally paid off in an enormous way. His band is now in high demand and touring America. On Monday, Nov. 18, they stop for their second performance at The Belly Up in Solana Beach, Calif., one of my favorite San Diego area music venues. I will be among the happy fans in attendance.

Leonid’s little Chicago project is now the world’s most popular Chicago tribute band. There are a bunch of videos now on Youtube, including Leonid's take on "Beginnings," which is my favorite song ever written. 

But ironically, to this day no one in the band has actually seen Chicago in concert because the band has never played in Russia.

The 11-piece outfit of musicians from Russia and Ukraine now has more than 140,000 followers on Facebook. On the band’s YouTube channel more than 2.5  million people have viewed the band’s take on “25 or 6 to 4,” and more than 1.6 million for its recording of my very favorite Chicago song, “Beginnings.”

The band has more than 35 million views overall for its videos. And the group’s two albums of Chicago songs, “Chicagovich” and “Chicagovich II,” enjoy very positive reviews from fans on Amazon, CD Baby and Google Play. The songs are spot-on like the originals, but there still is a pure joy in the performances. The band is simply staggering. The musicianship is impeccable.

Developing an enormous fan base in America, Leonid’s ultimate dream of performing in America came true earlier this year the band played its first American gig in New York City, then performed several shows at The Village studios, the famous Los Angeles recording studio where artists such as Fleetwood Mac, Elton John and Steely Dan have recorded.  

I interviewed Leonid and his son, Roman Vorobyev, the hard-working manager of the band and congenial host at each of the band’s gigs, while the two of them were driving to their next gig.

I was immediately struck by Leonid’s willingness to listen as well as talk. I think it has helped him get where he is now. His entire journey in America has been a learning experience, he says, and a happy one.

The message the band conveys at every gig is that music brings people together and breaks down social, political and ethnic barriers in ways that virtually nothing else can. These are guys who love rock and roll, soul and jazz, all the elements Chicago had and has, and the bonding that takes place between the audience and Leonid’s band is something to behold. It is unique and special.

Perhaps what has been the most satisfying thing about this journey for Leonid is that several current and former members of Chicago are big fans of the band. They admire what Leonid and his mates are doing.

Robert Lamm, Chicago’s founding keyboardist, co-lead singer and chief songwriter, met with the band recently and attended a show.

Tris Imboden, the outstanding drummer who was with Chicago for nearly 30 years, sat in with Leonid & Friends at the Belly Up a few months ago.

They are world-class musicians with an eye for detail that is almost frightful,” Tris says. “When I closed my eyes while I was playing with them at the Belly Up recently, it felt almost like it did when I would close my eyes and play along with those early Chicago records I used to listen to.”

Tris, who’s also played with such artists as Honk, Kenny Loggins, Michael McDonald, Michael Jackson, Crosby, Stills and Nash and Al Jarreau, adds that the members of Leonid & Friends “are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.”

The band has also received support and friendship from Jon Huntsman, the former United States Ambassador to Russia and Utah governor, who also happens to be a keyboard player who had his own dreams of rock stardom when he was a high schooler  in Utah.

“Jon is a musician and he loves Chicago. He came to one of our shows,” Leonid says. “He has since played on stage twice with us, one time in a club in Moscow and one time on July 4th at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.”

Roman tells me that the reception the band is getting at every stop during the current U.S. has been overwhelmingly positive for the band. "None of this was expected, and we are all just enjoying it very much," Roman says.

In 2019, there are lamentably a lot of people who don’t know or don’t remember just how powerful and gifted a band Chicago was when those original seven musicians headed from the Windy City to Hollywood, where they recorded the group’s groundbreaking and now-legendary debut album Chicago Transit Authority.

That record, and the following records in the 1970’s, represented popular music it its very best. Chicago had it all:

A powerful and nuanced horn section in Lee Loughnane, Walter Parazaider and James Pankow; a brilliant drummer in Danny Seraphine; a stellar lineup of three lead vocalists; two superb songwriters in Robert Lamm and James Pankow; one of the world’s most underrated rock bass players and rock tenors in Peter Cetera;  and one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time, Terry Kath, a monster musician who Jimi Hendrix once said was better than him.

Chicago, who were finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a few years ago simply blew audiences away. The first time I saw them was in the summer of 1974 at the Iowa State Fair. At that moment in time, Chicago was the most popular band in the world. It wasn’t even close. The band was charismatic and really connected with audiences and brought an energized blend of rock, jazz, soul and pop to the world.

And that feeling still lingers when you see Chicago today. They are still a great live act. But the pure, raw energy of vintage Chicago and the power of those songs really shine through at a Leonid & Friends show.

When performing, Leonid & Friends somehow manage to recapture much of that original Chicago magic in ways that one might not think is possible. It is the freshest, most astounding cover band I have ever seen.

And now they throw in a couple of non-Chicago (but compatible) songs in the setlist, including the Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” and Blood, Sweat & Tears’ “Spinning Wheel.”

For a lifelong Chicago fan like me, Leonid & Friends is a blessing. As someone who has loved Chicago all my life and who had the honor of recording one of my songs with Chicago co-founder Robert Lamm, seeing a group of mostly very young musicians from Russia and Ukraine enthusiastically playing Chicago’s songs warms my heart and fires me up.

Leonid & Friends are doing what any real tribute bands should do: They are effectively reminding the world what a kick-ass band Chicago was, and is. It is a testament to the music, and to Leonid’s resolute desire to pay homage to a band that gave him so much joy. Here’s hoping that for Leonid, this is only the beginning.

Leonid and his band perform on Monday night at The Belly Up in Solana Beach, Calif. Tickets are still on sale but I'm told they are going fast.

33 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. thanks very much! but why be anoymous?? :)

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    2. I'm anonymous cause I'm too lazy to sign in. My name is Alexander Meyer and I want tell you that your article was well-written, articulate and masterful in describing the very essence of is Leonid & Friends. Congratulations sir!

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    3. Thanks Alexander. I really appreciate the kind words, my friend.

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  2. What an exceptional piece of writing! You hit every "high", that Leonid and Friends fans expected. A wonderful story, told remarkably well!

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  3. As a musician, I grew up playing in horn bands. We played a lot of Chicago songs. Leonid is brilliant and the band is spot on. I will be seeing them at the El Rey in LA. Looking forward to hearing a great concert with amazingly talented musicians!

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  4. Well said. Great recap of a group that has re-sparked my love for Chicago, and music in general. Their energy and humility bring me a lot of joy just watching them on Youtube. Can't wait to see them live next week in St. George Utah.

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    1. Thanks kindly, Gary. You're gonna love the show!

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  5. Saw them two days ago in Portland. Wow. What an amazing ride. Something that struck me was how everyone in the audience was kind to each other, chit-chatty and reminded me of how people used to be. Good luck and future successes to Leonid & Friends! They called themselves Ambassadors of Peace, and it's a fitting title.

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    1. I agree, Steve. Well said. I'm sure you know that there are members from both Russian and Ukraine, who are presently still at war.

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    2. I saw them in Corpus Christi Texas and felt the great vibes from both the band and the audience. I've not been so excited about any band in years. They are truly spectacular.

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    3. I totally agree. They are amazing.

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  6. You got it perfect , these guys are so talented , Ive been a fan from the beginning with Love Affair video , the 25 to 6 to 4 , i asked Leonid to be a friend on facebook and then Bamb he accepted and we have talked to each other ever since , July 29 2019 I finnaly got to see the Band Live ( best Live show Ive ever attended ) Prior to the show Roman took me and my wife Backstage and we got to meet the hole band , I presented Leonid and Sergey some shirts my wife had made for them and of course they wore them onstage ( we were so shocked ) . Roman and the whole band were so gracious and friendy . Show was so good that we drove a couple hrs the next day to see them again and of course met them again . I hope others will take them in and make them feel so welcome in the USA , hopefully we will see again at some point in the future
    Thanks for sharing your story ,, Bill A

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  7. Thanks for the article which captures the band perfectly. I've seen them twice and the joy they exhibit while playing is obvious.

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    1. Thanks unknown, very much. But why be anonymous? We like folks to identify themselves here. :)

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  8. Jamie,
    It is with great pride I read and share this with others. You captured the essence of what this fan group has felt since we all first discovered them. They are world class musicians that come together as a Chicagontribute band. We all know, they are not a tribute band. They are the best of Russian musicianship. They play with passion, precision and love on their tribute videos, but embrace and radiate love for their American concert audience. They are truly friends now to so many hundreds of thousands they've played for already. They are the doctors for our musical souls!!

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  9. Thanks, Jamie. A good cover band helps people discover, or RE-discover, some sweet sounds from an earlier time. Recently I enjoyed the two men touring as a Salute to Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. I had seen Paul several times and Art only once but had missed seeing/hearing them together. I did see the Beatles live in 1965 in San Diego and Paul McCartney a few times more recently, but the touring Cover band The Fab Four are the best recreators! Enjoyed your article very much!

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    1. Thanks Chuck. Lucky you. I never saw the Beatles, but I have seen Paul many times, and Ringo. Yes, the Fab Four are definitely the top Beatles tribute band I've seen. I was fortunate to see Simon & Garfunkel three times, and both of them solo multiple times. Cheers and thanks for reading!

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  10. Well stated, sir. You hit the nail dead on several times in this article.
    I spend a fair amount of my online time watching tribute bands. Most are terrible. Every now and then I'll come across one that is impressive in their efforts to capture the essence and nuances of the band to which they're paying tribute. Then, you come across that one in a thousand that succeeds at doing what L&F have done while staying true to the original recording and not taking liberties with vocals or anything else.

    It's amazing that they are able to recreate the Chicago sound, and then some. But, when you add in the story of how it all came to be AND the fact that, other than Leonid, none of them grew up hearing the songs they're playing and still perform them like they've known them all their lives.

    Can't wait to see them tomorrow night in Gilbert, AZ. Sadly, there's no meet and greet for this show which is hugely disappointing.

    Great job on the article.i found myself nodding in agreement several times as I read it.

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    1. Steve, thanks kindly. Glad you liked the story. Enjoy the show, my friend.

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  11. I saw their very first U.S.show at the SONY theatre in New York. I saw them again on their Summer tour.
    I have a great picture with Leonid,both of us with big smiles. I stood next to Ksenia in a group photo but was so overwhelmed by her beauty that I didn't say a word. I listen to them almost every night. My favorites are "Beginnings" and "September". They are great musicians and nice people. As a former disc jockey and executive at Madison Square Garden, I talked to many stars. They are among the elite. Thanks for the story James.

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    1. Thanks Pedro, very well said. Cheers, Jamie (not James) . :)

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  12. We, my girlfriend and I saw them twice in 2019. First in Annapolis and their finale in Key West. We traveled from Philadelphia to Florida because they were absolutely incredible. We also had the pleasure of meeting the entire band pre and post concert in Key West, thank you Doreen Oswald Paquette! They are the nicest and most gracious people we have ever met.

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  13. It seems that a message flashed on the Chicago website that in the early 2000s the group gave one private concert in Moscow at the invitation of their wealthy fan.

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    1. Not seen by anyone in Leonid's band, however. Still no public performances by Chicago in Russia.

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  14. Great write-up Jamie.

    I discovered L&F after buying a ticket to see Chicago at the Hollywood Bowl. Knowing of their significant personnel changes, I thought I should manage my expectations and see some recent YouTube videos. And L&F can up in the search – lucky me. After seeing some L&F videos, I sold my Chicago ticket then bought L&F tix for The Rose and Belly Up in August ’19. And after seeing them then, I bought L&F tixs to see them through the Texas leg (Dallas, Corpus Christi, Houston) of their tour, and the return to the Belly Up (11/19) and El Reye.

    Jamie, can I get a high res copy of the picture accompanying the article? This would be for only my personal consumption (printed on the wall) and not distributed or sold. I am in the pic about 3 rows ahead of you in front of Serge.

    And congrats on surviving stage 4 cancer.

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  15. Fantastic article, Jaime. As I read it, it sounded like I could have written your article because, I too, fell in love with Chicago when I first discovered them, and wanted to copy their musicianship, as I played a number of instruments , myself. I just never had the time to dedicate that much time. I saw Chicago three times at the Forum, in Los Angeles. I was mesmerized each time. They were and still are my favorite band of all time. Now, I follow Leonid and Friend as if they were the original Chicago. I've never heard a cover band that sounded as if they had every note, every nuance, and the very bit the excitement as thee Chicago. Thanks for the great article. I'm inspired, once again.

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  16. Nicely written. I too loved Chicago. Played in a band in college that covered many of their songs (early 70's). Blown away when I came across my first L & F vid. Love every one, and look forward to each new release! BTW, have you checked out the new Chicago vids released since COVID?

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