Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A to JazZ Festival, Liubo Ursiny at Yalta Club (02/07/2011)

Although the music at these events was very good, the atmosphere made both of them instantly memorable.

Bulgarians love music. Whether they love music more than other peoples and cultures isn't really the point, but it's clear they appreciate a good concert more than most. I've seen something similar in other places where musical events are at a premium -- I think you appreciate what you get even more, especially if a notable international artist is involved. Under communism, clubbing didn't really exist in Bulgaria, internationally-renowned DJ's didn't start visiting until the 90's, and even now, such visits are fairly rare. Perhaps the market can't tolerate more events, or maybe the asking price of big DJ's is too high, I don't know (Bulgarians can't, and won't drop 10+ Euros on cover charges each week). The point is that you suffer through a few weeks where nothing interesting happens, then one weekend there's a cool free outdoor jazz fest and/or a extended set by Bulgaria's most renowned techno DJ. The level of collective enthusiasm goes through the roof.

Sometimes, the booking equivalent of the perfect storm needs to happen. Tiesto, who's as big a DJ as there is, is spinning at an event this month near the resort town of Burgas, on the Black Sea. Tickets are 15-20 Euro, which seems like an absurdly low cover price for a Tiesto gig. Is Tiesto's asking price lower when a vacation at the Black Sea is part of the deal? Or are the promoters expecting a windfall of partygoers at the peak of the Black Sea tourist season?

Anyhow, the mood at the A to JazZ festival was great, and why not? What's better than free music in the park on a Saturday afternoon? People of all ages gathered in the Doctor's Garden, lounged on the monuments and stones of Roman-era buildings, beers in hand, and took in an evening of tributes to the best of American jazz music. Even though the park turned into a graveyard for beer cans, nobody acted up or raised their voice, it was like a festival atmosphere mixed with supper club manners. And nobody was the least bit fazed during the ten minutes when it rained. It's almost as if there was an unwritten rule -- complain and they might not ever come back -- so everyone decided to be on their best behaviour. Just in case something like this never happened again, everyone brought their kids so they could be shown a good time while there was still a good time to be had.

The Ventsislav Blagoev Mainstream Jazztet jam it out and cover a bunch of the greats (Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk), and JP3 followed with their "official presentation of their new album 'Poison'" which was one stylish, snappy melody after another. Both are Bulgarian acts, but I couldn't really tell if the audience knows who they are or whether it even matters who they are. There was a small photo exhibition by a local photographer who's been documenting jazz concerts (by Bulgarian artists and post-1993, concerts by an impressive array of famous names) in Bulgaria for the past thirty years -- suggesting there's a rich history of jazz fandom in the country. But history wasn't important on this night. Most people didn't trek to the park because they were big jazz fans -- me included. They were there because it was a place to be, and do you really need a better reason to have a drink and lounge in the park in the middle of summer?


Later that night, I lucked into catching an event by local promoters Elevate, on their "Elevate presents Blame" night at the Yalta Club. The club is something of an epicentre for the Sofia club scene. Located across the street from Sofia University in the historic downtown of the city, it was one of the first (the first?) clubs to host internationally renowned DJ's after the fall of communism. Liubo Ursiny is renowned for his heroically long sets and I was pretty much sold after checking out his softer side on Blame's podcast series and his harder side on any number of wild clips from his sets that were captured and posted on Youtube. On top of that, I should have known that something special was in the air when I got to the club, where a) the security were polite and helpful, and b) the organizers let me in for half price even though my request to have my name put on the guest list wasn't received in time.

This was a no bullshit club night. I mean, what's the point of going to a club? To dance and have fun, of course. The Yalta Club is a two story club, open in the middle, shaped like a semicircle, with the DJ's elevated platform in the centre of the ground floor. It's not a large club and with bars along the far edges of the room, and tables scattered around the fringes of the main floor, there isn't a lot of free space in which to wander around once the dancing starts. On the other hand, it means that the place feels full once more than 40-50 people are inside.

I walked in and the place was frenetic. People were dancing literally everywhere -- on the ground floor, on the second floor, leaning over the railings, next to the bars, there literally wasn't a single person just standing around enjoying his drink, trying to look too cool to be there. Not a single person was standing still, and they were all locked in step with the rise and fall of the music. If Ursiny cut the bass, people cheered, if he tweaked the EQ's to build up the breakdown, hands were flung into the air. Since people were dancing while literally draped around and over the balconies, the Yalta Club turned into the video for AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" every 10-15 minutes or so.

That's a no bullshit club. Nobody stood around trying to be seen. Nobody popped in looking to see what the scene was all about, danced for half an hour, and went home. People were too busy dancing to ogle the go-go dancers in the weird silver lamé outfits. Ursiny's mixing was flawless, and although his choice of hard clubland techno isn't something that I would listen to at home, he knows every nook and cranny of the music and knows how to work it to the fullest in front of a crowd. Considering that he probably plays to the same small hardcore crowd of Sofia techno fans every time he plays a gig, it's all the more amazing that he's able to work his magic in front of people who are already familiar with all his tricks. Or maybe they simply like to dance that damn much, and couldn't care less about falling for the same tricks over and over again.

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