"There are so many opportunities to see music live in L.A., that artists are held to task more in bringing something compelling, inspired, and maybe even educational to their show," says Johanna Rees, the Philharmonic's special concerts program manager. "Hipsters want to be challenged — artistically and intellectually — and to come away with something that's been enjoyable and provocative."
Nick Urata, Devotchka's frontman (heavily featured on the "Little Miss Sunshine" soundtrack), isn't Russian, but he's got a newfound enthusiasm for Russian street music — especially "chanson."
Urata describes it as "an underground music genre which was a response to the repression of the Stalin years, and the disappointment of Russian life."
Still very popular in Russia, its original romantic incarnation goes back to the late 19th century. "Many of the [chanson] songs originated and [were] passed around in prisons and often performed in secret to avoid punishment," says Urata. "They are anti-establishment songs that tell of life in the margins."
Urata hopes to turn on a more intellectual music fan — maybe a KCRW-FM or college radio listener — who would be attracted to the music's outlaw sensibility.
"To think that music could be controlled and smashed by the state [in Stalin's Soviet Union] makes playing for some crossed-armed, disapproving hipsters seem like a privilege," he says.
But for a new generation of Russians, such backward-looking explorations are perplexing. "I wouldn't want to go see that kind of music," says Irina Palevsky, a 22-year-old student and Russian techno fan. "I like to dance."
Wild Russian nights
Russians living in L.A. don't have to wait for Planet-R's monthly parties to have a good time. On any given weekend night, there are over a dozen restaurants across the city that turn into full-on nightclubs after midnight, replete with cheap lighting effects and disco balls.
One such venue, Encino's Il Paradiso, is a good example of this vibrant scene. The otherwise nondescript restaurant (ironically located next to an International House of Pancakes) attracts a well-heeled, good-looking crowd every weekend. One look at the BMW-jammed parking lot gives you a good idea of the clientele.
Just like in Moscow, .40 Glock-toting security guards (a sign you are at a good club in Russia) flank the front entrance. Women in their mid-20s — dolled up in tight-fitting Badgley-Mischka dresses — gossip and smoke outside, while their banker boyfriends speak animatedly in Russian at the bar. Green laser lights illuminate the tiny dance floor, as Russian house (often performed live on the small stage) plays into the wee hours.
If chain-smoking twentysomething crowds and the occasional bar fight leaves you colder than Siberia, you'll find a more sedate experience at Crystal, a West Hollywood restaurant located on the second floor of a complex on Santa Monica Boulevard at Fairfax. Crystal offers an authentic, sophisticated Russian dining experience. Patrons come early for a lavish multi-course dinner and stay until 2 a.m. on weekends, drinking and dancing to live music.
"This is the traditional Russian style," says Natasha Tsoi, who runs Crystal with husband Sergey. Russians, she explains, like their dining late. "You invite everybody to the table that is already set and enjoy each other's company all night."
It's the same scene at multiple restaurants all over Los Angeles on weekend nights — from Palm Terrace, just down the block from Crystal, to Tarzana's new Barin restaurant. It might seem a tad formal compared with the casualness of L.A. natives, but that's Russians for you. "They like to dress up," says Natasha Tsoi, "celebrate and share good times."
Za vashe zdorovye!