Stage presence

  • 2008-03-26
  • By Howard Jarvis

ROCK ON: Rock and roll gets better with age. Lithuanian local hero still puts on a good show.

VILNIUS - Though he has created 18 studio albums in 25 years of making music, Andrius Mamon-tovas continues to suffer an alienation particular to his profession. He is one of those musicians who enjoys wild success and adulation at home, yet remains relatively unknown in the lucrative music markets of the U.K. and the U.S.
This is not about to change with the release of his forthcoming album, which he is promoting with a tour throughout Lithuania that climaxes this weekend at the Forum Palace in Vilnius. However, watching Mamon-tovas play gigs in towns and cities stretching from Marijampole to Siauliai, it is clear  he is still having a lot of fun.

Two of his last three albums have been largely instrumental mood pieces, one of them performed as a soundtrack to the recent Lithuanian film "Lost." Listening to Mamontovas  on his concert tour, it seems that he is pursuing a punchier, back-to-basics sound, more in tune with his alternative rock  beginnings.
This will be Mamontovas'  eleventh solo album in a string of releases that follows another eight studio albums as singer-songwriter with the acclaimed group Foje,  which split in 1997. Now over age 40,  Mamontova launched Foje (meaning "foyer") with three friends while still a wee lad at school in 1983.
Since then, his characteristic haircut, suggested to him by a childhood sweetheart, has remained roughly the same. These days, it's bleached and looks as cool as ever.

Mamontova's first cassette-only album appeared in 1984. It was called "Mokykla" (School), and it sounds like four pals enjoying a  jam session in a studio. However, by 1990 the musicians of Foje were taking themselves far more seriously, garbed in black and increasingly revered for a moody brand of synth-pop modeled on years of absorbing U.K. bands such as Soft Cell and Ultravox.
These were the pre-independence days when Soviet censors were inexplicably banning Julio Iglesias and Tina Turner at discos.Of course, much more was available on the black market.  Indeed, every Sunday morning in a forest outside Vilnius, several hundred people would gather around cases full of LPs.
This was also the time when The Cure and Depeche Mode were filling stadiums across Europe. So, when young Lithuanians realized that here were four good-looking guys from Vilnius who sounded a lot like them and spoke their language, mass adulation followed.

One song in particular had become a household anthem by the time Lithuania regained its freedom in 1991. "Lauzo sviesa" (Light of the Bonfire) was written as the country  stubbornly  persisted  in its struggle for independence and, for many, it reminds them of this dark but magical period in their lives. Listeners at radio station Radiocentras have named it the best Lithuanian song of the 20th century.
At one point in 1990, it was rumored that Soviet troops were about to storm the Vilnius Press Building. Foje quickly organized a concert outside the building, brought in other bands, lighting and a stage, and 20,000 people turned up. The troops arrived after midnight, saw the crowd, and retreated. For that, Mamontovas  received the personal thanks of the country's independence leaders.

Albums like the  poppy, catchy "Vandenije" (In the Water, 1993) and the darker, scrappier "Kai perplauksi up?" (When You Cross the River, 1995) lifted the band's reputation  to the heights of a national institution. Their farewell concert in Vingis Park attracted 60,000 people, a record number in Lithuania.
During the past ten years, Mamontovas has worked just as hard as a solo performer. He played and recorded every instrument except the violin on his first solo album, ?iaur?s naktis, 4:30 (Northern Night, 4.30 a.m., 1998). The confrontational, guitar-laden 1999 hit, "Mono arba Stereo" (Mono or Stereo) was played on radio stations across Europe with the accompanying video screening regularly on MTV. On May 1, 2004, when Lithuania and its neighbors joined the European Union, Andrius Mamontovas was chosen as the main act at a festival in Berlin.

Since 1997, the performer has found surprise success in the title role of an internationally acclaimed stage version of "Hamlet," created by Lithuania's most highly regarded theater director, Eimuntas Nekrosius, notching up 180 performances in 40 countries.
Mamontovas, who now cites Leonard Cohen, the Waterboys and Boris Grebenshikov among his key influences, is a dazzling entertainer who can move audiences with his evocative songs. Take this latest opportunity to see him live.

Andrius Mamontovas plays the Forum Palace, Konstitucijos 26, Vilnius, on March 29, 20:00.