It was tables out at the No So tonight, and a reverential reception for the uncontested queen of modern Tartar folk music Miss Zulya Kamalava and her phenomenally talented Children Of The Underground. From the first beat of the opening song Leaving we are willingly transported to another realm; a scene from an Emir Kusturica film, a basement cafe in Moscow circa 1955, a circus band playing the funeral of the fallen trapeze artist, even Berlin between the wars. So consumed with the songs is Zulya that she enacts them in a mesmerising way you thought only dead singers filmed in black and white could do with any authenticity. But here, in Melbourne, it happens.
Groundbreaking in a way only non-rock Australian acts can be, Zulya and co. have achieved success overseas that only a Radio National arts show would care for, but tonight they make a compelling case for breaking outside of folk festival and ABC radio spheres.
Playing many songs of their misleadingly-downbeat entitled last album The Waltz of Loneliness, which really broke them in Europe, including glorious versions of The Leap, Love Hunter and City March it was their newer songs that truly impressed. Possibly due to the distraction that is childbirth, the new album finds songwriting duties spread amongst the band members more than before, which gives us guitarist Lucas Michailidis's gorgeously evocative Forgotten Song, accordion player Anthony Schulz's wondrous White Wind Tango, and bassist Andrew Tanner's striking The Wolf And The Moon. Not to ignore the drumming of Justin Marshall whose skill is so compelling, subtle and fluid that only the voice of Zulya could wrest back attention. Arrangements in all songs are so brilliant and individual musicianship so masterful as to send Cat Empire back to the conservatorium. It seems the Children Of The Underground have been playing together for decades, so well do they mesh, so aware of each other and so committed to the song that it seems a miracle of fate that they should have wound up on a stage together. Despite more songs being sung in English now (two tonight), Russian and sometimes Tartar is the language she uses, and thanks to her warm explanations we can gauge some semblance of intention, but really the song's meaning is for her and we are privy to her captivating journey through it. Bez Idek, an adapted Tartar nursery rhyme is a highlight of the evening and gives Tanner a chance to flaunt his considerable Jews harp skills.
Whether it's childbirth, the thrill of being back on stage after a long break or seeing them go from strength to strength with songwriting and arrangements, this warm-up to their CD launch was a truly wondrous gig to behold.