This concert was scheduled November 19, 2023.

Last Sunday night, a sold-out crowd at the Clark Center in Arroyo Grande was treated to my favorite concert of any kind of music, in any venue, in 2023.

Who was on stage? Everybody, it seemed. Chicago. Earth, Wind & Fire. Steely Dan. Lighthouse. Blood, Sweat & Tears. Spencer Davis Group. Chaka Khan. The Carpenters.

Music we all grew up on, performed by 11 high-powered musicians and one sultry female singer in a show that clocked in at three hours (with a short intermission), arguably a record for any Clark Center concert.

Oh, mention must also be made of the fact that English is a second language for this group, composed of musicians from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

Let’s back up to July. I interviewed Dave Pier, executive director of the Clark Center, about his upcoming season. When asked which show he was the most excited to present, Pier didn’t hesitate in responding.

“Come see this group Leonid and Friends,” Pier advised. “They’re amazing. There’s nothing else out there quite like them.”

I had never heard of this Moscow-based group, but they’ve become a YouTube sensation these last few years and after watching several clips, I jumped online and bought my tickets in a musical leap of faith.

To be honest, I’m not typically a fan of these “tribute shows.” There are far too many out there, often served up by musicians hoping to draw in a crowd who normally wouldn’t come otherwise. Hearing a local band cover classic rock at Mongo’s is one thing; paying top dollar at a venue is quite another.

Besides, most of the music performed Sunday night were songs by the great rock band Chicago, and I had just seen them at Vina Robles in August.

Leonid & Friends with their appreciative audience November 19, 2023 at the Clark Center.

But Leonid and Friends turned out to be so much more than a mere tribute show. A fast-food burger is not a steak; Kohl’s is certainly not Nordstrom’s. And Sunday night this band, having been on the road since Labor Day, proved from their opening notes that they’re serious musicians who also know how to have a good time.

Most importantly, they showed, song after song, that great music is universal, regardless of language.

Credit for all this goes to group founder and leader Leonid Vorobyev, a Russian recording sound engineer and former choir director who recorded his first song by Chicago, “Brand New Love Affair,” in 2014.

After creating the band, Leonid and Friends recorded three Chicago tribute albums, breaking down the iconic songs and matching them note for note. They became social media sensations and made their first U.S. tour in 2019.

Leonid and Friends are indeed amazing. There’s nothing else out there quite like them.”

There were some nice touches Sunday night. I had never seen a band introduce their road crew before, but Leonid proudly called them out one by one after he introduced the musicians.

Comic relief was added through Leonid’s son Roman (who also doubles as manager). The young man came out at the beginning to whip the crowd into a frenzy and crack a few jokes as if channeling comedian Yakov Smirnoff (“We were all over Texas. I can now tell the difference between a redneck and a hillbilly”).

Roman later returned to auction off a 49ers football jersey signed by the band to raise money for the arts (“It’s important to us that we support other artists”). The fierce audience bidding ended up netting $1,500.

Musical highlights for me included watching new lead guitarist Konstantin Kovachev rip through the Chicago songbook, especially with “25 or 6 to 4.” Amazing finger work.

Drummer Igor Javad-Zade laid down an intense 10-minute drum solo on “I’m a Man.” At one point, he left his drum set, walked to the front of the stage, dropped down to his knees, and continued playing on two small drum pads on the floor.

The guy sitting behind me was certainly impressed: “It takes years to be able to do something like that,” he whispered to his companion.

Singer Ksenia Buzina is the only female member of the group. After four or five hard-driving, horn-blaring songs, Buzina stepped up to the microphone and wowed the audience with an unexpected, heartfelt rendition of “Superstar.”

Nobody can match the late Karen Carpenter’s voice, yet it was a beautiful moment and Buzina made the song her own. Then she immediately spun around and raised the energy back up with Chaka Khan’s rousing “Ain’t Nobody.”

It was that kind of rollercoaster evening. Chicago. Earth, Wind & Fire. Carpenters. Who else do these unpredictable Russians have up their musical sleeve? They answered that during the second set with Steely Dan(!) and their early classic “My Old School.”

By the encore—Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September”—I sensed the audience was emotionally drained and ready for bed.

Don’t ask me to compare Leonid and Friends to the musicians they honor and salute on stage. I can’t. I was thrilled to finally see Chicago perform last summer, but this Clark Center show was so unexpected and so different from my typical concert fare.

I have to agree with Dave Pier: Leonid and Friends are indeed amazing. There’s nothing else out there quite like them.

Definitely friends worth keeping.

:: David Congalton