In late September, Trevor Tanner, ex-lead singer of 80s Goth Rockers The Bolshoi, toured the East Coast of the USA performing a repertoire of The Bolshoi classics in acoustic format. I flew across the Atlantic to catch several gigs on the tour—
For every one of the classic 80s New Wave acts frequently celebrated in today’s pop culture and cited as influences by contemporary bands, there are a dozen more criminally unsung and overlooked acts, who deserved equal success to the likes of The Cure, The Smiths, New Order, Depeche Mode etc., but as things turned out, they remain consigned to obscurity. If there is just one band from that sea of obscurity who really did have solid potential to add to the list of international success stories, The Bolshoi are certainly strong contenders. They had everything it took to become huge – insanely catchy tunes that stood nicely on the barrier between Alternative and mainstream, quirky and eccentric but also radio-friendly, and a charismatic frontman in Trevor Tanner, whose mere stage presence could command the attention of an entire crowd. Sadly it was not to be- despite huge success in Latin America, Russia and parts of Europe, The Bolshoi never found commercial success in the UK and dissolved after three studio albums and a 4th one that remained unreleased until 2015. Famously dubbed ‘the best band in the world that no-one’s ever heard of’, they may be unknown to the wider public but have retained a wildly enthusiastic fanbase, while frontman Trevor Tanner has gone on to carve a remarkably prolific and eclectic solo career. This last year has seen The Bolshoi’s legacy finally celebrated with the release of a 5-CD box set in November last year, consisting of re-mastered versions of all three of their 80s albums (Bigger Giants (1984), Friends (1986) and Lindy’s Party (1987)) together with the long-overdue release of their fourth album Country Life (1988) and a 5th CD of unreleased demos and live recordings. To coincide with this, Trevor Tanner last month released his new solo album, Trevor Tanner’s Bolshoi Favourites, containing acoustic reworkings of many of The Bolshoi’s classics in-keeping with Trevor’s current style, as a nod to his legacy and roots as a musician. Funded by fans via a successful Kickstarter campaign, the release of the album was accompanied by a tour of America’s East Coast in September through to October 2016, co-headlining with Jay Aston of Gene Loves Jezebel, fellow legends of 80s Gothic Rock. I flew out to the USA last month to catch three of the gigs on this tour- at Eddie’s Attic, Decatur, GA (Sep 23rd), Tin Angel, Philadelphia, PA (Sep 26th) and the Bowery Electric, New York, NY (Sep 30th).
The best band in the world that no-one’s ever heard of
The Bolshoi stood out beautifully in the sea of 80s New Wave bands; they made powerful, anthemic pop-rock tunes infused with a mish-mash of styles; Post-Punk, Goth, Glam Rock, Electronica, Psychedelia, French Chanson, Folk, Cabaret – all these styles are evident in the depths of The Bolshoi’s back catalogue; often conflicting styles, but all stunningly melded together into one coherent entity so distinctly The Bolshoi. Their raw power and vitality made them a sensational live act, fronted by the wry, sardonic vocal delivery of Trevor Tanner, whose style was infused with a
This mixture of paranoia, bewilderment, amusement and frustration all comes out in The Bolshoi’s lyrics
touch of Shakespearean melodrama and a deadpan eccentric English humour. The lyrics told tales of suburban hypocrisy, superficial façades, the seedy and cynical underbelly beneath the innocent exterior of middle-England churchgoing families. Trevor Tanner wrote many of the songs alone in his bedroom on his acoustic guitar, before the full band (consisting of Nick Chown (bass), Jan Kalicki (drums) and Paul Clark (keyboards)) rocked them up and turned them into the masterpieces we heard on record. A close listen to The Bolshoi’s back catalogue reveals the voice of a young musician who seems to have experienced a lot of awkwardness in his youth, a sense of not fitting in, never quite accepting or being convinced by the whiter-than-white façades of those around him. This mixture of paranoia, bewilderment, amusement and frustration all comes out in The Bolshoi’s lyrics and the raw energy of the music; a burning intensity and subtle anguish beneath the surface let out in a mocking style that is never bitter or overtly angry, more playfully cynical with a dose of sarcastic black humour. This was all unleashed onstage sensationally, with the engaging stage presence of possibly the 80s’ most unjustly overlooked charismatic frontman. A natural showman and a true born star, but sadly (I use that term tentatively for reasons I’ll go into later) one that was not to be destined for Wembley Stadium alongside the likes of Robert Smith and Bono.
For this listener, The Bolshoi is the best band not only of the 80s, but… ever. I’m aware that’s a subjective opinion on my part. But The Bolshoi are the band that cuts it best for me and has touched me the most deeply. Born too late to have been familiar with them in their heyday, I got into them in the early 00s in my days of heavy Goth clubbing, and I could wax lyrical about the experience of discovering them. Without sounding too over-the-top, it was like falling in love; like getting into a really intense and passionate relationship that you just know is going to be right for you. The recollection of the night I first listened to their Best Of album still sends chills through me. They hit the mark with me where other bands failed; they perfectly captured the emotions I felt as a socially awkward Autistic youth struggling with confusion at the hypocrisy and cynicism of everyday society. In a way that was never overtly angst-ridden or self-pitying, nor self-aggrandizing, just delivered with a wry good humour and a solid laugh at the absurdity of it all. Their songs could make me laugh out loud and bring me to tears at the same time. They got me through a hell of a lot of rough times; helped me discover myself, helped make me the person I am today. In the early days of Facebook I set up a fan group for The Bolshoi, which I still run to this day and through which I connected with members of Trevor’s management team as well as Bolshoi keyboardist Paul Clark. When this Kickstarter-funded tour was announced, I set out to the USA to catch the tour, and finally see Trevor perform live.
After The Bolshoi dissolved in 1990, Trevor Tanner emigrated to the USA, and since then has kept himself busy as a highly prolific singer-songwriter, experimenting with styles equally eclectic as his days in The Bolshoi. He is best known in the USA today as frontman with Celtic Folk Rock trio Rathkeltair, one of the most popular bands on the Celtic Festival circuit on the East Coast. But alongside this he has released six solo albums, and plays regular gigs in his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, many with his latest project Gypsies Ginger, which he describes as ‘gypsy thieving pikery’, with both original songs and covers inspired by gypsy folk history and the philosophy of ‘getting away with it’. A lot of this could sound far removed from The Bolshoi, a band generally associated squarely with the mid-80s Gothic Rock movement. It could seem a long stretch from brooding Gothic Rock to bagpipes, traditional Irish and Scottish Folk tunes and gypsy folk. Yet play his more recent works alongside The Bolshoi’s albums of the 80s and it all seems to flow naturally together as a coherent whole, much as The Bolshoi’s own mish-mash of styles did in their self-contained back catalogue. The sardonic humour, deadpan delivery and deep, intelligent lyrics are still just as much there, only evolved and matured. It is the spectrum of a truly talented musician with a hell of a range of influences. It is an insight into the unsung genius that is Trevor Tanner.
Trevor Tanner has remained adamant that there will never be a Bolshoi reunion, despite much demand from fans old and new. Considering how solidly he has moved on, we can hardly blame him. Churning out new songs by the moment, he’s totally not someone to wallow in nostalgia or sentimentality about the past. And this tour is undoubtedly not about nostalgia nor an attempt to relive past glories. This tour of America’s East Coast sees the songs performed in the reworked style that we hear on the new album, only with the added dynamic of Trevor’s ever-captivating stage presence, audience interaction and unrivalled showmanship. As stunning as he is on record, this man is in his element in the live environment.
The live show
As stated above, I caught three shows on this tour, in Decatur, Philadelphia and New York. All in small, intimate venues with a great atmosphere; ideal for acoustic artists.
Before I go into Trevor’s set, I must give a huge shout of approval to Jay Aston, frontman with fellow 80s Goth Rockers Gene Loves Jezebel, who co-headlines the dates with Trevor. While I may be focusing on Trevor in this article, Jay’s role on this tour is equally worthy of an article in its own right. A powerful and engaging singer-songwriter with one of the most distinctively beautiful voices I’ve had the pleasure to hear in the live environment, Jay Aston opens each night on the tour to stunning effect. His delicate vocals and trademark ‘banshee wail’ are deliciously seductive and enthralling in the intimacy of the small acoustic venues, resonating perfectly against his distinct guitar style. His stage presence is both humble and powerful at the same time; he chats casually with the audience in between songs before delivering entrancing tunes that send a chill through the whole venue. Looking fantastic, and musically on top form, Jay Aston is another fine example of a musician from the 80s New Wave movement who has only gained in power and integrity with the passing of time. As with Trevor, his performances on this tour are a mark of progress rather than nostalgia, and he proves a force to be reckoned with. He opens each night beautifully with his set and could justifiably have headlined, but Trevor proves to be a hard act to follow.
Trevor is accompanied on the tour by Daniel Hunting, a young bassist from Trevor’s hometown of Jacksonville, who joins Trevor for his regular weekly pub gigs in his hometown. Dan plays acoustic bass, and does nothing short of a fantastic job. Whilst totally nailing the basslines laid down three decades ago by Bolshoi bassist Nick Chown, Dan adds his own unique touches to each of the songs and immediately makes his presence strongly felt. He and Trevor make the perfect team and their excellent musical chemistry becomes even stronger throughout the tour.
Each set opens with The Bolshoi’s classic ‘Sunday Morning’, an ode to the hypocrisies of religion and the pretensions of devoted churchgoers. Always a heartfelt song, descriptive of Trevor’s childhood, the sentimentality behind the lyrics still comes across in Trevor’s vocal delivery. Fans sing along in unison with the chorus, and the strong love for this underground New Wave classic is all too evident.
The romantic, cabaret-tinged ‘Pardon Me’ is introduced at each show as being about “a phrase you say when you’re sorry… but you’re not really sorry. Like I never am.” A firm fan favourite, this sarcastic ode to social indifference is delivered to perfection at each show; an embodiment of Trevor’s trademark dry humour, delivered in a bittersweet manner, harking back to The Bolshoi’s early influences from Jacques Brel to late-60s Bowie.
‘Happy Boy’, one of The Bolshoi’s earliest singles and a live favourite back in the day, is an engaging crowd-pleaser, with Dan making a fine claim to the song’s classic brooding Gothic Rock bassline and benefiting from some solid improvisation towards the end. Trevor tells us in New York that this song was originally written about Donald Trump. Whether true or not, the song nevertheless seems nicely relevant to this particular point in history, with its lyrical themes of rebellion against the establishment combined with a smug self-satisfaction.
Each gig sees a splendid rendition of The Bolshoi’s 1987 single ‘Please’. A keyboard-heavy disco-funk tune in its original incarnation, this song works amazingly well in acoustic format, with Trevor’s staccato guitar techniques and Dan’s bass groove.
The Decatur gig sees a gorgeous rendition of the bittersweet ballad ‘Crack In Smile’ from the Lindy’s Party album, dedicated to long-time fan Lissa Vrtjak, who travelled from Illinois for the show. The brooding emotional intensity of this classic works nicely in the immediate, strangely tranquil atmosphere of Eddie’s Attic, and it seems a shame that this song was not performed at the subsequent shows I saw.
The song ‘Fly’, the opener of The Bolshoi’s Giants EP, gets an outing at each of the shows, and at all of them it proves a particularly striking moment. Expressing dissatisfaction at the rocked-up form in which the song was originally released, Trevor delights in giving us a stripped-back acoustic performance in line with the version on his current album, as he originally wrote the song, alone in his bedsit on his acoustic guitar. The stripped-back version certainly benefits from a deep intensity strangely missing from the original. The new album has been promoted with the tagline that “Sometimes the greatest songs get even better”. This particular performance definitely lends some nice credibility to that claim.
Further songs include ‘Giants’ itself, for which Trevor tells us the inspiration, of how the song was inspired by a marijuana trip he experienced in his youth (weed stolen from his mother!) in which he hallucinated electricity pylons coming alive, thus being the ‘Giants’ of the title. ‘A Way’, one of the band’s most popular singles and the song that introduced me to The Bolshoi, sounds flawless at each show, its tale of secretly dysfunctional families, teenage pregnancy and preoccupation with reputations never failing to thrill as long-time fans sing along with every word. ‘Looking For A Life To Lose’, from 1986’s Friends album, is given a great reworking on the new album, and works brilliantly in the live environment, again sounding superior to its original incarnation.
Decatur’s show sees an outing for the brand new song included on the Bolshoi Favourites album- the song ‘Friends’, written by Trevor as ‘the title track that could have been’ for the band’s 1986 album. Lyrically alluding to the album’s original intended title ‘Friends or Fiends’, the song is a nice showcase of Trevor’s continued ability to write songs with an instantly catchy hook.
Laugh-out-loud dark humour interspersed with a real sense of heart-wrenching melancholy
But one of the ultimate highlights of each show certainly has to be the set’s closer; Trevor’s cover of Jacques Brel’s chanson classic ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ translated into English as ‘If You Go Away’. Covered by many artists including Nina Simone, Dusty Springfield, Marc Almond and countless others, Trevor has recorded his own version specially for the Bolshoi Favourites album as a nod to the band’s early influences (while they never covered this particular song, they did cover Brel’s ‘Amsterdam’ which was a regular opener of their early live shows). Trevor’s take on this legendary heartfelt ballad is enthralling to watch, captivating the audience entirely at each of the shows. In between verses, Trevor tells us that “The next verse is in French. And I’m not French. But I am pretentious, so I’m going to sing it anyway,” before proceeding to sing the next verse in French whilst reading from a handwritten lyric sheet. Who else could manage to inject such a touch of dry humour into a performance of a profoundly moving ballad whilst succeeding in preserving the song’s original sentiment? Only Trevor Tanner could. This has always been his skill as a songwriter and as a live performer. Laugh-out-loud dark humour interspersed with a real sense of heart-wrenching melancholy, that artists all the way from Scott Walker to Jarvis Cocker would have killed for. He still has it, after over 30 years.
The gig at the Bowery Electric, New York, the final gig I was able to attend on the tour, is a particularly special night. This is a standing venue rather than a seated one, so the audience gets to dance, and the atmosphere is livelier, allowing Trevor and Dan to relax more and experiment a bit. (Unfortunately it also means some ill-mannered punters choose to talk loudly during Jay Aston’s set, but a feisty lady from Cuba who I convinced to come to the gig after she got chatting to me in the bar above quickly shuts them up.) Trevor and Dan join Jay Aston for the final song of his set, and then Jay joins Trevor and Dan at the end of their set for a full-on improvised jam session. The chemistry between the three of them is amazing, and a testament to the talent and integrity of devoted musicians. Between the three of them, they rock the house, and New York is left more than satisfied.
I would have happily attended every gig on the tour had it been financially possible. This tour was a fantastic and moving experience, and Trevor, Dan and Jay seemed to be having the time of their lives. It is a true testament to the talent of these unsung legends of 80s New Wave. But more so, it’s a testament to the integrity of true, professional singer-songwriters and musicians, who know better than to succumb to over-the-top posturing or the whole Rock Star complex. This is why, as much as they deserve to be every bit as famous as The Cure, Morrissey, U2 etc., it may not actually be such a bad thing that The Bolshoi – and Gene Loves Jezebel – have remained underground. Their music has not become lost in oversized venues devoid of atmosphere such as Wembley Arena. Instead we get to hear it in small, intimate venues, up close and personal, with a fantastic setup.
Trevor Tanner’s talent and passion for what he does really shone brightly throughout the tour. Through his breathtaking performances and his banter with the audience in between songs, he proved himself a natural born showman, who just can’t help but be great in the live environment. He’s come a hell of a long way and moved on from The Bolshoi’s heyday, but isn’t afraid to celebrate his past and how it’s made him the musician he is today. Cruelly there are still many people, even some Bolshoi fans – particularly in the UK – who aren’t aware of just how productive he remains as a musician to the present day, and it would be great to think this tour may spread the knowledge of his work and just what a colossal, solid and massively impressive back catalogue he has. From The Bolshoi, to his short-lived early 90s band Kite, to his solo albums, his work with Rathkeltair, Celtic Soul and Gypsies Ginger (heck, we might as well even include the Punk band Moskow he was part of in Trowbridge shortly before starting The Bolshoi), this man has a solid body of work spanning almost 35 years, covering all styles from Goth to Glam to Cabaret to Celtic Folk to Country to Electronica- it’s almost a case of you name it, Trevor Tanner’s done it. And all in a style that is uniquely, distinctively Trevor Tanner, all the way from the Celtic bagpipe-driven Folk Rock of ‘Durty Wullie’ through to the techno-disco trance of ‘Shame Game’. We need more than The Bolshoi box set, we need a Trevor Tanner box set, encompassing everything he’s done over the past 35 years. He could easily do a full-scale tour as himself performing material from all his multitude of different projects. If The Bolshoi were the best band in the world that no-one’s ever heard of, then Trevor Tanner is easily the best singer-songwriter in the world that no-one’s ever heard of.
The music world doesn’t realize the genius of Trevor Tanner just yet, but the thing is, Trevor Tanner doesn’t realize it either. Out of all the musicians I have had the pleasure of meeting, Trevor is easily one of the most humble, unpretentious (no matter what he says!), unassuming and conscientious of them all. There’s no ego about him, no Rock Star complex, no jealousy towards more famous musicians, no shame in openly doubting himself. He just does what he does, and happens to do it more brilliantly than even he realizes. And he really cares about giving his audience the best show possible. Upon my first meeting with him before the gig in Decatur, he immediately welcomed me, knowing right away who I was and thanking me for flying all the way from the UK for the tour. After the gig in New York, he bought me a drink as thanks and showed me about the sincerest, most heartfelt gratitude I’ve ever had from any musician. Perhaps it’s apt, given just how much his music has meant to me. Before we parted ways after the New York gig, he even asked me “You’re not pissed off, are you?” Absolutely not Trev, I loved every minute of it. It was worth every moment of jetlag and every moment of strenuous travel. His 2011 solo album was titled Musical Charlatan, seemingly a self-alluding title. Well if this is what a charlatan’s like in the music world, we don’t need to bother finding the real deal. Trevor Tanner is an unsung genius with a hell of a body of work and a legacy. And it’s time more of the wider music world woke up to him.