The Great American Music Hall
May 28, 2022
Photos by Geoffrey Smith II
It isn’t very often that a band is able to have any kind of success in the United States without singing primarily in English, and those that do have any modicum of success are usually one-hit wonders: Nena with “99 Luftballoons,” or PSY with “Gangnam Style” immediately come to mind. There are of course exceptions to the rule: Germany’s industrial metal band Rammstein is still able to sell out arenas, and Japan’s alternative metal band Dir en grey are still able to tour the United States once or twice every album cycle to mostly sold-out shows.
And then there’s Molchat Doma. Formed in Minsk, Belarus in 2017 and consisting of Egor Shkutko on vocals, Roman Komogortsev on guitar and keyboards, and Pavel Kozlov on bass and keyboards, the post-punk outfit gained popularity via YouTube, with a video containing a rip of their second album, Etazhi, reaching over 2 million views in just a couple of years. That might seem like low numbers compared to the likes of someone like P!nk, Metallica, or Green Day, but we’re talking about a three-piece band from Eastern Europe with lo-fi production that sings in their native tongue. Not exactly Top 40 material.
Fast forward to 2020: the band is ready to embark on their first North American tour, and their show in Oakland at the Elbo Room has sold out. I’m incredibly eager to finally see the band on what could potentially be their only tour Stateside. And then… well, 2020 happened. In the meantime the band signed to Sacred Bones Records and released their third album, Monument, before announcing a rescheduled US tour in larger venues, which still did nothing to stop most of the shows from selling out, to the point where they had to add a second date at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco (both nights ended up selling out). And that was the show that I attended.
Despite advertising that the show would start at 9:00PM, Molchat Doma didn’t take the stage until just past 9:45 to rapturous applause, the audience not caring that they had to wait an additional 45 minutes to see a band that some of us had waited over two years to see. And let me tell you, the wait was definitely worth it. The lights darkened and the sound of thunder crashes shook the venue. Egor stood motionless at the microphone stand as Roman and Pavel launched into “Kletka,” the closing song from Etazhi, as the audience collectively went nuts.
The stoic nature of the frontman wasn’t something that was limited to just the first song: Egor stood almost completely motionless for the duration of the show, only gesticulating with his hand or staring wildly at the audience during more dramatic songs like “Ya Ne Kommunist” and “Lenindgradskiy Blues.” That in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, as the music of Molchat Doma doesn’t lend itself to the sort of intensity that would inspire crowd-surfing or a mosh pit. Instead, audience members swayed to songs like “Toska” and “Kryshi,” Roman and Pavel playing nearly identically to the respective recordings of the songs, with the two switching to keyboards to play some of their most recent material, like on “Discoteque” and “Udalil Tvoy Nomer,” as well as on the older song “Na Dne.”
One thing that I have to note is just how good the band sounded. While their first album at times sounded like it was recorded inside of a tin can, all of the songs that were performed from it sounded, to me, how they should have always sounded: the vocals were clear, the bass was driving, the guitar lines minimal and immediately catching your attention. Admittedly I’m not a big fan of their most recent album, but the live performances of those songs also completely trumped the respective recorded versions of them. One could chalk it up to the man running sound, who was Molchat Doma’s own sound mixer, but I think that this band shines brightest in a live setting. In just over an hour the band was able to play sixteen songs, and every single one of them sounded great.
Egor thanked the audience in English a few times throughout the set before speaking in Russian, getting enthusiastic cheers and applause whenever doing so. Those thanks and a couple of other phrases towards the end of the show were the only times that he uttered anything in English, and the audience just didn’t seem to mind: they only wanted to be there, in that moment, enjoying the music. Hell, there was even a moment during the song “Tentsevat'” that Egor stretched the microphone out to the audience during the first chorus, and the audience yelled the lyrics back at him. It was truly a great moment, seeing the audience sing the song back to the band that had traveled across the ocean to perform their songs in North America for the first time, and for that audience to not only cheer and holler every time the band started or ended a song, but to also sing the songs in a language that I’m certain most of the members of the audience don’t speak.
The band closed their main set with the opening song of their second album, the aforementioned “Na Dne,” which also happens to be my single favorite song by the band. This was a song that was made to be danced to, and dance I did. For me, this was the true highlight of the show, although I could be biased. After leaving the stage for only a couple of minutes, the band returned to the stage, Egor shouting, “Are you ready?!” at the crowd multiple times to warm them up to what was coming… “Sudno (Boris Ryzhyi).” For the unfamiliar, this is the song that introduced a lot of people to the band, or possibly even to the genre of post-punk. It’s the song that you might have seen in meme videos a couple of years ago of children dancing in clubs while lights strobed around them, or set under the video of Charles Manson dancing wildly in a court hearing. And I do have to admit, the exposure to that song alone seemed to have gotten some of the crowd into the venue, with a good number of the heads in the audience belonging to what one of my friends referred to as “TikTok teens.” And, as predicted, this was the song where nearly everyone pulled out their phones to film the band and cheered to the point of obnoxiousness. After the lone song in the encore, Egor thanked the audience and the trio left the stage.
I think that The Great American Music Hall was a great choice of venue for the band to play; it’s ornate ceiling isn’t unlike that of larger venues like The Fillmore or The Warfield, and its floorplan is pretty similar to the former venue. That being said, this place was packed. And when I say packed, I mean packed. Even after standing back near the soundboard for part of the show, I couldn’t help but notice how cramped it was. I’m not complaining or accusing the venue of over-selling tickets for the show, but what I am saying is that the next time Molchat Doma tours North America, they’re going to have to play at one of the larger venues that I mentioned. And trust me, there will be a next time.
Here’s a slideshow with more photos of Molchat Doma by Geoffrey Smith II: