Back in the U.S.S.R., there’s little demand for a Chicago tribute band. But Russia’s Leonid & Friends is making people smile in the U.S.
Finding capable Russian horn players in Moscow in the 1970s who could play “25 or 6 to 4,” “Make Me Smile” and other brassy rock songs by the American band Chicago proved daunting for Leonid Vorobyev.
“Most of the brass instrument guys at the time were the ones who played at funerals! They were not too good at this kind of music, so it was a big challenge,” said Vorobyev, who now leads the multi-generational Leonid & Friends, Russia’s most popular Chicago tribute band.
Make that Russia’s most popular Russian Chicago cover band, except in the group’s native Russia.
In Leonid & Friends’ homeland, the demand for a group performing note-perfect versions of hits and deep album cuts by Chicago equals the demand in the United States to hear American tribute bands playing the music of such top Russian rock and pop acts as Boris Grebenshchikov, Zvuki Mu and Kino.
“Our music is definitely more suited to audiences in the West, because Chicago’s music is not really known in a broad way in Russia,” said Vorobyev, who makes his San Diego debut with his one-woman, 10-man band, Leonid & Friends, on Thursday night at the Belly Up.
Moreover, there is little demand in Russia for bands of any kind who sing exclusively in English. And while Chicago’s U.S. album sales number close to 40 million, Russia has never been a major (or even minor) market for the Illinois-bred group, whose next San Diego area performance is Sept. 20 at Harrah’s Resort Southern California.
Vorobyev, a former choir director, has long worked as a producer, arranger and session musician at a Moscow recording studio. He readily acknowledges just how improbable it is for any foreign Chicago tribute band to achieve even a modicum of success in the U.S., let alone one whose members sing in accented English and hail from Russia, Siberia and Ukraine.
No Chicago back in the U.S.S.R.
Leonid & Friends’ quest was made even more quixotic by the fact that neither Vorobyev nor any of his band mates have ever attended a concert by Chicago. And, because sheet music of Chicago’s music and lyrics was not available in Russia, Vorobyev had to learn and transpose all the songs by ear, then write out charts for his group’s other members.
Then again, as a child in Siberia in the 1960s, the only time Vorobyev saw The Beatles perform on Soviet TV was in a Russian government-produced propaganda film denouncing the dangers of western cultural decadence.
When he broke a string as a teenage electric bassist, the scarcity of musical equipment in Siberia meant he had to continue playing for more than a year with just three strings. He also had to maintain a low musical profile, since — until the mid 1970s — rock ‘n’ roll was regarded as a corrupting influence by the powers that be in his homeland.
Vorobyev started the what became Leonid & Friends in 2014 as a one-off, specifically to celebrate his 60th birthday recording a version of Chicago’s 1975 song, “Brand New Love Affair (Parts I & II),” with Vorobyev on keyboards and lead vocals. The video of that performance was subsequently posted online. It did so well that Vorobyev and his musical pals recorded and filmed their versions of other songs by Chicago and posted them as well.
Reaction has been significant, with the real Chicago sharing some of Leonid & Friends’ videos on Chicago’s website. The Russian group’s version of “25 or 6 to 4" now has more than 2.5 million views by itself. Altogether, the band’s video performances of various Chicago songs amassed more than 30 million online views before Vorobyev and his group arrived in this country for the first time early this year.
In 2017, Leonid & Friends released its debut album, “Chicagovich: To 50th Anniversary of the band Chicago,” featuring their versions of 11 songs by Chicago. Another 11-song covers album, “Chicagovich II,” came out last year.
Also in 2018, current U.S. ambassador to Russia (and former 2016 GOP presidential candidate) Jon Huntsman sat in on keyboards with Leonid & Friends at the 1,000-capacity Yota Arena in Moscow. Together, they performed Chicago’s 1972 hit, “Saturday in the Park.”
Leonid & Friends embarked on its first U.S. tour in January. They kicked it off with three sold-out shows at Village Studios in Los Angeles, where Chicago co-founder Robert Lamm hung out with Vorobyev and his group and original Chicago drummer Danny Seraphine sat in for a few songs.
“It still is hard to conceive this is happening, because many Russians can only dream of playing for American audiences,” Vorobyev said last week, as his band drove to a gig in New York from Vermont.
“I thought the opposite would happen and that we probably would not be well-received by by the American audience.”
Although he sings reasonably well in English, Vorobyev, 64, felt more comfortable conversing in Russian for this interview. His 28-year-old son and tour manager, Roman, served as his able translator.
The elder Vorobyev’s band is now embarked on an extensive U.S. summer tour, to be followed by more dates in this country in the fall. The group’s growing popularity here stems from several factors beyond mere novelty.
Leonid & Friends performs with such spunk and and precision, at least on its recordings, that the band has been hailed by some fans for “playing the music of Chicago better than Chicago.”
Because it has 11 members — as opposed to the seven musicians who comprised Chicago in the Illinois-bred ensemble’s creative heyday in the1960s and ‘70s — Leonid & Friends has an even fuller sound than the group it pays homage to nightly on stage.
And while Chicago has always been an all-male band, Leonid & Friends includes a talented female singer, Buzina Kseniya Yurievna, 29, who boasts supermodel looks and has a degree in international economics.
“She gets lots of admiration!” acknowledged Vorobyev’s son, Roman.
Leonid & Friends’ website includes their video performances of the brassy 1969 Blood, Sweat & Tears’ hit, “Spinning Wheel,” and Earth, Wind & Fire’s 1978 hit, “September Song.” Otherwise, it appears to be all-Chicago, all the time.
What is the allure for Vorobyev, who — because of the difficulty of obtaining American albums in Siberia as a teenager — only heard Chicago’s 1969 debut album three years later in Moscow on a cassette tape bootleg?
“Blood, Sweat & Tears and Tower of Power were great, but they only had one (lead) vocalist,” he replied. “Chicago was unique in that they had three (lead) vocalists. All three sang in different ranges, had completely unique voices and also sang in harmony. Chicago was a land of jazz, rock and pop music, all together.”
Leonid & Friends is now preparing to make its third album. Vorobyev has written some original songs and hopes to collaborate with a lyricist fluent in English. But his musical focus remains squarely on Chicago.
“We don’t know where it will go,” he said, “but we want to keep going on this adventure.”
Leonid & Friends performing the music of Chicago
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 8
Where: Belly Up, 143 South Cedros Ave., Solana Beach
Tickets: $35 (general admission), $62 (reserved loft seating) $85 (band meet-and-greet package)
Phone: (858) 481-8140