Voices called out `Julia! Julia!’ as though she was a friend that they had passed in the street and she beamed as someone handed her a huge bouquet of pink roses. I had come expecting to see an ice queen; instead what I got was a good-time girl….
This, I had also thought, was not going to be my scene but I found myself happy to lay down the thousand rouble entrance fee at the door to see Julia Volkova play live. It would not do to miss a chance to witness the return of an iconic half of Russia’s best known pop sensation.
The 31 year old Olegavna Volkova formed the edgier half, with Lena Katina of the synth-pop duo t.A.T.u who became a global phenomenon in 2002 and then for another five years.
Since that time Julia has fallen out with Lena, reconciled with her and then fallen out again, married and divorced and given birth twice, and received surgery for throat cancer. Furthermore, if you type her name into a search engine the word `homophobia` will pop up. She found herself in the middle of a row about gay men after letting slip, on a Ukrainian chat show, that she would not like her son to be a homosexual.
It would have been easy for me to miss this event, as it received scant hard copy notice: it was only mentioned in the monthly flyer that the hosts Mumiy Troll music bar, produces, otherwise there were no posters. Nevertheless on the 29th April, which promised to end a long drab winter, about two hundred people filed into the bar on Tverskaya Street, which is just opposite a shop selling military clothing.
Donned in smart casual gear, there were more women than men and many could not have clear memories of the early noughties. They gathered round the oval bar in the centre of the club to order pricey German beers or even cocktails. Some of them were Friday night regulars who would pass the evening chomping on their pommes frites and chicken kievs gazing at it all as if it were on television.
The faithful, however, congregated around the platform and waited while a loop of soft rock from Mumiy Troll played on in the background. The lights then flickered as stage smoke appeared.
There was no other build up. Looking over at the stage door we stole a glimpse of Julia, hemmed in by bouncers with sweatshirts bearing the legend `No Stress`.
The drummer lumbered on stage first, and looked like one of the bouncers, and he was followed by a silken haired maestro of a violinist, a t-shirted guitarist and a man with strap-on keyboards.
Then at last Julia made her entrance: she was a black kitten in fishnets, with wild spiked hair and lobster coloured skin. She was accompanied by two backing singers in black and white uniforms like air stewardesses.
This odd ensemble set about a rendition of `Friend or Foe` and, as though they had been waiting for this very number, the gathering sang along as they held their smart-phones aloft hoping to capture Julia as she boxed the air to the peppy beat.
This set the trend. Julia’s more contemporary pieces, such as the Berlin cabaret like `Woman All the Way down` did not get an airing and instead we were treated to a bit of a t.A.T.u retrospective with such classics as `Nas Nye Dogonyat`, `Loves Me Not` and `Ya Soshla s Ooma`
There also ensued some sort of monologue spoken over an instrumental backing, the usual teary ballad and a token rap interlude. The chunky rap artist –whose contrast with the diminutive frame of Julia could not have been greater–only drew a polite but cool reception.
The hour and a half long set was filmed and what defined it was Julia’s ebullient demeanour. At one point she even addressed onlookers peering in from the windows overlooking Tverskaya Street. Judging, moreover, by the contingent of ecstatic boys who responded to her as if she were one of their own, her remark about gay men has not caused a rift with that section of her fan base.
Then the sound. Rocked up by pounding drums and reinforced by extra singers it became pure pop-rock-dance fun, and was quite apart from the plastic industrial clatter of some of t.A.T.u’s recordings.
I have been to more worthy gigs and to ones cooler and more up-to-the-minute. This one, with its feeling of being a friend’s reunion, is one of the few where I haven’t been waiting for it to end so that I could replenish my drink.