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I wasn't quite sure what to expect tonight when I arrived at Sheffield University's Firth Hall. The imposing portraits lining each of the walls of Firth Court, an assortment of local philanthropists, master cutlers and benefactors of the earliest Sheffield steel firms, looked on in dignified silence. Mark Firth stared down from his 19th Century perspective, his rugged Abraham Lincoln expression staring disapprovingly at my Levis and wondering "what the heck are all these Russians doing here in my building?" The clues of what to expect from this evening were not in the fabric of the building itself but rather in the previous few days of watching hilarious video promos of Otava Yo in action, with their familiar white vests, winter hats and unusual instruments, performing such delights as the Russian Couplets While Fighting routine and that song about pancakes.
To the sound effect of birds and croaking crickets inhabiting an imaginary Russian lake, guitarist Alexey Skosyrev casually strolled on stage, followed by bass guitarist Timur Sigidin. One by one the other musicians followed to a nervous smattering of applause that didn't quite get off the mark; the audience didn't quite know what to do. Attired in what I imagine to be standard working class Russian accoutrement, the six members of the band could for all intents and purposes have come straight out of a Dostoevsky novel. Opening with the enchanting introduction to Kamarinskaya, the band soon found their party feet and if the audience had been in any doubt as to what Otava Yo were all about, it soon became clear in their infectious music.
With a tight rhythm section made up of the aforementioned Alexey Skosyrev and Timur Sigidin, augmented by Petr Sergeev on percussion, each of whom lined the back of the stage, the line-up was completed by Yulia Usova and Dmitry Shikhardina sharing fiddle duties, together with Alexey Belkin, whose battered psaltery looked very much like it had seen some action, each of whom dominated the front of stage. Alexey, who doubled as the band's piper, also provided the song introductions, serving as the conduit between his fellow musicians and the audience, some of whom could speak Russian.
After enquiring "how many of you speak English?" followed by "kak mnogiye iz vas govoryat Rossii?", the charismatic musician built some rapport with the audience. "We are Otava Yo who came from St Petersburg to sing a few Russian folk songs for you." And this is precisely what the band did for the duration of the generous two hour-long sets.
This is the band's first UK tour and quite possibly the first time any of the audience had seen them. Despite this, by the end of the concert, the music seemed very familiar, their highly infectious rhythms evoking the Russian country dance. I sensed that the multi-generational audience were itching to get up to dance but for some inexplicable reason managed to restrain themselves. Such familiar songs as They Wukk Recruit Me, Those Pancakes of Mine and The Tale of Ivan Groove rubbed shoulders with a couple of unidentified mountain songs and even Christmas songs, but still no dancing.
The second set saw the band appear on stage dressed in their more familiar white vests and floppy Russian winter hats, opening with their James Bond-styled knees-up Quadrille. For authenticity, Dmitry produced a megaphone for The Twisting and Turning Blue Scarf, which was also accompanied by the sound effect of a crackly old 78rpm record. The theatrics are consistently engaging but never at the expense of the band's supreme musicality. Towards the end of the concert, the band pulled out possibly their most beautiful and accomplished piece, a song called Ivan the Crawfish, with its heart-lifting build and ultimate crescendo, but not before Alexey and Dmitry performed their ritual fighting routine to the strains of Russian Couplets While Fighting.
After introducing the band and announcing the final song, Alexey invited the audience to get up and dance, something he should have probably done a lot earlier, as the front of stage was immediately filled with folks who only needed to be asked once. So relieved were the band that they continued with at least a couple more tunes, Street Cleaner and The Story of Dima and Pyeta, which ultimately brought this fascinating show to a close.
I'm sure it won't be long before Otava You return to Sheffield. I hope not.