Bering Strait Tickets for Sale

The documentary is curiously flat, blunting most of the story's drama even as it shows the principals clearly near the end of their financial and emotional ropes. But that just makes it an appropriate companion to their CD, which, despite the rich musical and cultural background of the musicians, is little more than generic Nashville. With the most countrified instruments downplayed in Maher's production, you'd never guess this band once picked and sang the kind of acoustic mountain music repopularized just three years ago by O Brother Where Art Thou?; instead, the fetching but anonymous-sounding voices of lead singer Natasha Borzilova (who also plays acoustic guitar) and backup vocalist Lydia Salnikova (keyboards) are emphasized. Natasha does hit all the notes just right but with no distinguishing style, though in fairness to her, it would take an unusually daring singer to make much out of a lyric like, "I still wear a locket/ With a picture of you and me by the river/ Was it that long ago" (from "I'm Not Missing You"). Such songs, by the kind of Nashville pros who get most of their life experience sitting in cubicles and writing rooms trying to come up with something that sounds like whatever's at the top of the charts that week, could use a little Russian darkness in pondering love's ups and downs; only "I Could Be Persuaded," thanks to a meaty melody, is catchy enough to work as a single. The exceptions are the Grammy-nominated "Bearing Straight," a twangy, band-written instrumental romp featuring lead guitarist/banjoist Ilya Toshinsky, and the traditional "Porushka-Paranya," which evolves into a Russo-American hyper-hoedown.

The country group Bering Strait took one of the more unusual paths to major-label status in Nashville. Natives of Obninsk, Russia, the group — consisting of Ilya Toshinsky (guitar, banjo, vocals; born November 28, 1977), Natasha Borzilova (vocals, guitar; born August 19, 1978), Sasha Ostrovsky (dobro, steel guitar, lap steel; born August 11, 1980), Lydia Salnikova (keyboards, vocals; born August 10, 1980), and Alexander Arzamastsev (drums; born September 15, 1973) — was organized by a bluegrass-loving music teacher. (Sergei "Spooky" Olkhovsky [born February 15, 1978] replaced an earlier bass player, and mandolin and fiddle player Sergei Passov, an original member, dropped out after participating on their debut album.) They began to play out as teenagers and earned opportunities to visit Nashville in the early '90s. Eventually, they attracted the attention of a Nashville-based manager, who brought them over the U.S. and sought a record deal for them. They signed to Arista Nashville, but that label shuttered before they could record an album. The former head of Arista moved on to Gaylord, a start-up label, and they followed him there, recording an album with producer Brent Maher. But that association fell through, too, and it was not until January 2002 that they followed the same record executive to his next berth with the newly formed Universal South imprint of Universal. Finally, in January 2003, their self-titled debut album was released, while their travails were detailed in the 90-minute documentary The Ballad of Bering Strait.
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Right now, after five-plus years in the music biz, Bering Strait is still a full-fledged media event. As a musical event, though, the Russian country band remains a question mark. For that they can thank mainstream Nashville, which has cannibalized that producers and artists there seem to be incapable of creating something that doesn't sound just like everything else; artists and producers blame this on radio, for having such restrictive play lists, while radio blames you and me, for having such bad taste. One upshot of this is that the best way to break a fledgling act is not with new, different, and interesting music but with a new, different, and interesting story. And that, Bering Strait has. Perhaps you've already heard it on NPR or 60 Minutes. Here's the short version, as detailed in The Ballad of Bering Strait, the recently released feature-length documentary film.

Now between the ages of 22 and 29, the original six classically trained members were all still teenagers when a music teacher assembled them into a bluegrass band in Obninsk, a town of nuclear scientists two hours from Moscow. In 1998, after being spotted in a Moscow Mexican restaurant by an American art dealer who knew somebody who knew Nashville executive Tim DuBois, the band moved to Music City. Glasnost followed quickly. They jettisoned their Russian music-teacher manager for a Nashville veteran, hooked up with producer Brent Maher (best known for his '80s work with the Judds), and signed with DuBois at Arista in 1999. Then, Bering Strait got the business. DuBois promptly lost his label in a power struggle, and the band floundered until their patron was named to run the new label Gaylord. But that company never got off the ground, and DuBois resigned after five months. Though the musicians had been recording with Maher all this time, they couldn't legally hold other jobs due to visa restrictions, and all were living in a one-bathroom ranch house with their manager and his wife, who were going broke. The bass player got canned. Two weeks after some Straits were finally able to lease an apartment in town, it burned to the ground. Finally, DuBois and Tony Brown, another done-it-all Nashville exec, formed a new label, Universal South, under the aegis of the powerhouse Universal Music Group. The movie ends with the band signing its deal and then busing off to D.C. for its first American concert.
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