If you wanted to listen to anything other than Soviet propaganda music in 1970s Siberia, the best you could hope for was an illicit copy. But when Leonid Vorobyev got his hands on an album by the band Chicago that had been pirated on a home tape recorder, it blew the young musician’s mind.
“It’s a combination of rock music, pop music, and jazz music, and you have the horns and great vocal harmonies as well,” Vorobyev says. “You have that alloy of all of that together.”
These days, the longtime Russian producer and studio player is bringing the reproduction of Chicago’s music to another level. Vorobyev leads a tribute band, Leonid and Friends, that has won giddy acclaim from US classic rock fans wowed by their faithful renditions of Chicago’s big, distinctive sound.
The 11-piece band swings through Massachusetts next week, with a July 31 stop at Salisbury’s Blue Ocean Music Hall and an Aug. 3 engagement at Plymouth Memorial Hall. The shows are part of the band’s second American tour this year.
In an interview translated by his son, band manager Roman Vorobyev, Leonid Vorobyev says he has been astonished by the reception his band has gotten in the United States.
“It’s still a mystery to me. I was ready for the complete opposite response from the Chicago fans,” Vorobyev says.
Chicago doesn’t really register in Russia. He and his bandmates originally got together as a one-off to record a version of “Brand New Love Affair” in 2014 as a 60th birthday celebration for Vorobyev.
They posted a video of the session to YouTube, which shows Vorobyev playing keyboard and offering a convincing take on Terry Kath’s sentimental lead vocals. The post got such an enthusiastic reception that they recorded several more Chicago songs and posted those, too. Vorobyev now has more than 75,000 subscribers on the video service, and the original post has racked up nearly 185,000 views.
With its tight horns, grooving rhythm sections, and slightly Russian-accented vocals, the band got noticed by the real Chicago, who promoted some of their posts on social media. And a few weeks ago, founding member and drummer Danny Seraphine sat in with Leonid and Friends at a show outside of Chicago (the city).
Vorobyev says he thinks American listeners are drawn to his band’s careful re-creations of the original songs it is playing. None of the band members had ever seen Chicago play live before launching the project, so they had nothing but the albums to go on.
“We take great care and painstakingly reproduce the studio sound of the original Chicago songs on the albums to make it alive again in present times exactly as it was back then,” Vorobyev says. “That’s the great part of the effort that is now paying off.”
He says he’s not sure his Russian background has made much of a difference in how Leonid and Friends sounds, but he says it helps give the band a distinctive back story.
The success of Leonid and Friends also shows how the Internet has opened up cultural pathways — for better and for worse — that didn’t exist between Russia and the United States when Chicago hit the scene.
“Music is the universal language, and in itself it can unite people,” Vorobyev says. “We are extremely happy we can bring even a little contribution to creating a peaceful, friendship environment between the two countries.”
LEONID AND FRIENDS
At Blue Ocean Music Hall, Salisbury, July 31 at 8 p.m. Tickets $25 (standing room only), www.blueoceanhall.com. At Plymouth Memorial Hall, Plymouth, Aug. 3 at 8 p.m. Tickets $29-$49, www.memorialhall.com
Andy Rosen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.