I hopped on board the Yellow Blue Bus at The Railway Hotel in Port Adelaide on Sunday 27th September to see how far down the road this band, that I enjoyed seeing at Womadelaide in 2018, have travelled.
To start off, these guys still have a lot of fun on stage – they certainly haven’t lost the banter and quick-witted quips directed at each other and the audience. The merry pranksters in charge of this Yellow Blue Bus trip are Ihor Kushnir (bandura, didgeridoo and pvc pipe, vocals), Damian Chumak (bandura), Peter Telenko (electric bass and electric upright bass), Michelangelo Micelli (drums), James Sweeney (violin, vocals and guitars), Tony Hole (percussion, keyboards, halo, taishogoto and shahi baaja), and Sarah Ferguson (vocals).
And just as the original 60’s Merry Pranksters took an inquisitive world on board their bus named “Furthur,” (their spelling) down the psychedelic path of beat culture, the Yellow Blue Bus are beating out some interesting musical journeys that take in the epic ballads and folk tunes that the Ukrainian bandura is so well suited to; the Indian mystical that the shahi baaja offers; and the wild Celtic and rockabilly beats that James Sweeney’s violin brings to the band.
In trying to define their sound, “ethno-chaos,” the term coined by another Womadelaide favourite, DakhaBrakha comes to mind; and there is that element to Yellow Blue Bus, but bandura player, Kushie, introduces their first set as trippy psychedelia. And just like that quirky line, “these cars collide,” from the band The Psychedelic Furs, this bus crashes through a whole range of styles that leave you in a trance, have you dancing and then singing along all in the one set.
The banduras are the centre piece of the band and their 65-string harp and lute-like qualities add a gentle ethereal ambience to the driving beats of the drums, bass, guitars and keyboards. Add to this Tony Hole’s halo – an instrument that looks like a weber BBQ but has a sublime heavenly sound, and his Japanese taishogoto and Indian shahi baaja; and the music starts to sound and feel like the wide-open spaces that David Bridie gave us with his band Not Drowning, Waving. One of the stand-outs from their first set was the Celtic-inspired ballad Waves sung by James Sweeney and Sarah Ferguson. It is worth noting that many of the songs in this set are Tony Hole compositions.
The bandura is a quintessentially Ukrainian instrument. In his autobiography, My Testimony, the classical composer Shostakovich tells us that Stalin tried to destroy banduras and executed bandura players. Luckily, some bandura players survived. Hryhory Kytasty survived Stalin’s terror and escaped to the US; where he established a reputation as the most prolific composer for the bandura. Yellow Blue Bus give the audience a contemporary, slightly funkadelic take on three of Kytasty’s compositions, Kynuv Kuzhil, Homin Stepiv and Tyutyunnyk. Homin Stepiv is an evocative soundscape that takes you on an aural ride through the grassy steppes of central Ukraine, while Tyutyunnyk stirs the emotions as images of freedom loving resistance fighters staving off oppressive invaders are conjured up. The Yellow Blue Bus’ second set is, in fact, their homage to the Ukrainian heritage of bandura players Kushnir and Chumak and bass player, Peter Telenko. The traditional gets a contemporary makeover, and it’s done with good taste and respect for the roots. We even get some Madness One Step Beyond ska-filled Ukrainian dance music in a song called XPIH translated as Horseradish. Just imagine a thick layer of horseradish on your favourite Ukrainian food which you are hoofing in to while you are trying to dance. This is an absolutely infectious belter of a song.
Their third set is party time. Time to put on your dancing boots. Yellow Blue Bus show that they play both kinds of music – “Country. And Eastern.” And if it wasn’t for the COVID seated only restriction, the full house at The Railway Hotel would have been kicking up their heels because The Yellow Blue Bus rhythm section is as good as it gets. Telenko and Micelli lay a rock-solid foundation for Sweeney to cut loose with some frantically manic electric violin. These three bring a rich musical pedigree to the band having played in reggae, blues, folk, rockabilly and bluegrass bands in previous incarnations. They are the engine room of this bus and don’t miss a beat. Gogol Bordello’s Start Wearing Purple which morphs out of that old jazz standard, Istanbul is the stand out song in this set.
Yellow Blue Bus are regulars at The Railway Hotel. Great atmosphere. Great ride. Get on board. If you can’t get on board physically, check them out on Spotify. Hopefully we will see them again at WOMADelaide in the not too distant future.
Live Review By Bob Becker