The Red Elvises

Ealasaid/ October 23, 1998/ Movie Reviews and Features

Originally written for The Occidental

What do you get when you take good food from all over the world, Elvis, surfing, and Russian rockabilly, and stick ’em all in one place on the Santa Monica Pier? A schizophrenic evening, and a rockin’ good time — The Red Elvises at Rusty’s Surf Ranch Bar and Grill. The cultural mix is perfect for Oxy students, who are more than familiar with the multiculturalist mission statement of this fine bastion of higher education (Fester: I like big words. Ealasaid: that’s what you get for having two ECLS majors write a review!).

Our evening began with a moment of terror: after paying the seven-dollar cover charge, we were told that all the tables were booked. Luckily, a reservation was canceled at the last minute, and we stepped in to take the table at the back of the room. Although we were a little put off at first, we soon realized how fortunate we were. Rusty’s is small enough that we had a good view of the stage, and an even better view of the band when they sat down for dinner behind us (Ealasaid: Hey, who had a good view? I was facing the wrong way! Fester: Yeah, but I described them to you).

In order to keep our table, we had to buy dinner. Luckily, we’d given Tiger Town [note for Non-Occidental folk: Tiger Town was the name of the temporary dining hall] a pass that evening, and were ravenous. The food was reasonably priced, arrived promptly, and was plentiful (Fester: I’m still full! My burrito was the size of a small child. Ealasaid: And my babyback ribs equaled Tony Roma’s in taste, but kept my wallet happy). The large drinks menu was reasonably priced, and our sodas (yes, we both have yet to reach the magic age of 21) were refilled for the entire four hours we were there — for free (Fester: Can we say ‘big tip?’ Ealasaid: ‘Big tip’)

The entertainment began as the band warmed up. Attentive listeners were treated to the sound of Zhenya Kolykhanov (lead guitars, vocals) testing his mike, with a quiet “von, too, testink, ve are Yuri and ze Blowfish, von, too!” That alone should have been an indication that what were about to witness was going to be far from typical.

The Elvises.  Photography by Rachel Romond blankThe mere appearance of the band themselves was something of a hint as well. Dressed entirely in bright reds, yellows, and garish patterns (Fester: hey, I like plaid!), and featuring a bass player with hair as red as his giant, triangular bass balalaika (Fester: we’re talking RED! Ealasaid: Think Ronald McDonald.). Note for the curious: A balalaika is a three-stringed Russian folk instrument, which can range in size from smaller than a guitar to the red monstrosity Oleg plays (Ealasaid: That thing is as tall as he is! Fester: I recommend to all budding jazz groups: check it out for an entirely new sound!). Add to that Igor Yuzov (guitar, lead vocals) with a perfect Elvis look and mannerisms (Fester: Gotta love the pelvis!) and Zhenya’s Buddy Holly’s glasses, and you’ve got a perfect indicator of just how bizarre this band is (Fester: Bizarre is good!)

Oleg Bernov (bass, vocals), Igor, and Zhenya are all Russian; only drummer Avi Sills is an American (Fester: as American as a Texan is, anyway). The band’s ethnicity comes through in the music, with Russian-accented singing and a unique Eastern European twist from the balalaika-bass, and Zhenya’s unique Russian style on the guitar. For you curious music majors, the band relies heavily on the Gypsy scale (a harmonic minor with a raised 4th), and bases several of their tunes on traditional Eastern European songs (Fester: imagine Hungarian Dance #5 played surfer-style… and you wonder why I’m impressed).

In the course of that fantastic evening, we heard rockabilly, middle Eastern (complete with a Muezzin call), surfabilly, reggae, and tango. Avi came out from behind his drums and put on a wig to do the strangest performance of “Play that Funky Music (White Boy)” it has ever been our pleasure to hear. Another highlight was a self-mocking country-western piece, “What a Sad Cowboy Song,” during which a Conga line formed. Elvis made an appearance (Fester: They’re called the Red Elvises for a reason! Ealasaid: Igor’s got the hips down!) with a medley of songs including “Hound Dog” and “Heartbreak Hotel,” which they introduced as “A traditional Ukrainian folk song” (Ealasaid: two thumbs up for their entertaining stage banter!). Perhaps the most amazing thing is that none of these conflicting styles was dominant — they were all mixed together in a schizophrenic, yet very enjoyable blend.

The only real problem all evening was the sound system. The microphones cut ou occasionally, and the the instruments were at a higher level than the voice mikes, which often made the Red Elvises’ hilarious lyrics hard to understand.

As the night progressed, the dance floor slowly but surely took over the dining area, until people (Fester: including yours truly) were dancing on the benches along the wall. Even so, there wasn’t enough room to do more than groove in place. However, the dance floor did clear when Igor leapt off the stage to tango with an unsuspecting audience member (Fester: we like Igor. Ealasaid: Speak for yourself, I’m sticking with Zhenya).

When the band finally left stage, we felt as though we’d been chugging sugar for the three hours we spent listening to them play. We bounced out to the car, and car danced all the way home. Our verdicts?

Fester: They were hilarious. The music has substance and humor to it, and was very easy to dance to. In fact, it’s almost impossible not to dance. I’m addicted.

Ealasaid: Addicted doesn’t even cover it for me. Zhenya’s guitar playing is amazing, and they have so much fun on stage that you can’t help having fun, too.

For anyone intrigued by what we’ve said, the Red Elvises will be back at Rusty’s on October 30 and November 27.
Call 310/393-7437 for information.

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