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Russian Chicago tribute band ferries message of hope and unity to Ute Theater

Leonid & Friends during a previous performance.
Courtesy/Roman Vorobyev

Being a music lover behind the Iron Curtain inherently requires some critical thinking, according to the life of Leonid Vorobyev. This was especially true since there wasn’t easy access to instruments back then.

“You couldn’t just go buy an electric guitar,” says Roman Vorobyev, Leonid’s son. “You’d have to study a science magazine and build it yourself.”

Leonid Volobyev is 67 years old and plays in a Chicago tribute band. The band, Leonid & Friends, headlines the Ute Theater in Rifle at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 9.



Leonid is also a native of Siberia, growing up near Russia’s southern border with China. This meant he spent a good chunk of his life pursuing music under Soviet-era rule, a time when music — especially Western music — was a lot more systemically guided by the state.

People built instruments. People also intentionally traveled to Russia’s borders to try to capture British and American radio waves emitting pop culture and music, Roman said.



“They would have to go a long ways to actually obtain reel-to-reel recordings to copy and get songs off the albums of the famous bands at that time,” Roman said. “They had to go to the borders of Russia to turn on the radio, transcribe them to play the songs.”

“Things were wild like that.”

These clever and highly innovative methods of musical consumption exposed Leonid to the one and only Chicago. Chicago is a U.S.-based fusion band that twists elements of rock and roll and jazz into one, and its horns section at the time spoke to many Russians. Some Russians also mistakenly thought Jimmy Pankow, one of Chicago’s founding members, was Russian. Turns out, however, he has Bulgarian ancestry.

“In the early 1970s in the USSR, electric guitars, amplifiers and drums were rare to find, so at school we were playing self-made instruments,” Vorobyev is quoted saying on the band’s website. “We were allowed to rehearse in the same room with a horns band. Those musicians almost always were drunk and quite often tried to play with us our rock songs. It was a nightmare, and I hated them all!”

Leonid & Friend pose for a photo.
Courtesy/Roman Vorobyev

Leonid also eventually graduated from musical college in Siberia. Roman said his father was specifically educated as a choir conductor.

“He transcribes every instrument note by note,” Roman said of his father. “No notebooks with scores. He just listens by ear.”

Leonid got involved with studio music and spent most of his career playing in various bands. In 2014, he’d gather friends — musicians from Russia, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine — into the studio to play and record the Chicago classic, “Brand New Love Affair.” The recording would go viral and, impressed by their spot-on rendition, soon the official Chicago band would post it to their website in celebration.

Roman became the band’s musical manager in 2017 and by 2019, Leonid & Friends embarked upon their first tour of the U.S., he said. They have since toured the U.S. six times, playing more than 160 shows in 40 states.

They now have more than 600,000 followers across social media.

“We’ve been all over the place,” Roman said. “We’ve seen so much of America, and we really appreciate it because it’s a beautiful country and has beautiful people. It’s like our second home.”

There’s no saying the past few years have been easy. First, there was COVID-19 and, second, Russia of course invaded Ukraine and to this day the war rages on.

According to Roman, the dire circumstances inspired Leonid & Friends to take action, which is why they’re once again touring the nation.

“We’re bringing people together through the universal language of music and building bridges,” Roman said. “We decided we’re going to do what we can to bring that hope and unity of music.”

Concert attendees can expect quite an amazing set list next week, Roman said. In three hours straight, an amalgamation of 11 vocalists and musicians are set to take the stage to jam many of Chicago’s greatest hits. Meanwhile, they’re also set to play cuts from Tower of Power, Earth, Wind & Fire and even a song sung by female vocalist Ksenia Buzina, who covers “Ain’t No Body” by Chaka Khan.

“This is what you get with Leonid & Friends,” Roman said. “It’s note for note, live music. (Leonid) plays bass and orchestrates the whole thing.”

IF YOU GO

What: Leonid & Friends

When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 9

Where: Ute Theater, 132 East 4th St.

Tickets: Range in price $35-$65. Can be purchased at https://utetheater.com/event/leonid-friends/ or at the door (limited)


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