Big in Lithuania: Takoma Park band rocks former Eastern Bloc

by Hank Cox

Our local Takoma Park-based music group, The New Misty Crystals, travelled to Jonava, Lithuania, the week of September 21-25, to give a concert. The Crystals, who play country/rock consist of Martin Lowery on keyboard and guitar; Jeff Almen on guitar and mandolin; George Simpson on bass; Richard (Ricky Wild) Weil on drums and guitar; and me on guitar and harmonica. Lowery, Weil and Cox are long time Takoma Park residents. Almen and Simpson live in Northern Virginia.

We arrived in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, on our first morning and were met by our wonderful hosts, Valdas and Zivile Antanavicius, two of the nicest, peppiest, friendliest people we have ever encountered. They took us in a bus into Vilnius for lunch and a walking tour. It’s an ancient city with many buildings dating back to the Middle Ages, but yet modern and lively. On the way out, it appeared our bus was breaking down and we began to contemplate being marooned in the middle of Vilnius, but fortunately the bus revived.

Lithuania was until 1992 a part of the Soviet Union, a connection the Lithuanians are eagerly putting behind them. The former KGB headquarters in Jonava is now a public library. It is beautiful country, green and lush rolling farms interrupted by lakes and streams that could have been in Virginia or Maryland. There are about 3 million people in Lithuania and, curiously, their language is totally unlike the tongues spoken in nearby Latvia and Estonia. When people from these nations need to communicate with each other, they use English or Russian.

After touring Vilnius, we went on to Jonava,  a city of about 30,000 about 80 miles northwest of Vilnius. Along the way, our hosts stopped to pick up “refreshments” which included some truffles and a very nice bottle of brandy. By the time we got to Jonava, we were ready to sing for our supper.

Jonava is where the cultural festival, AIDAS 2011 took place. (Aidas means “echo” in Lithuanian.) This event is held every other year featuring visitors from other countries, and the focus is mainly on theater. One of the more interesting themes this year was a series of three productions of Chekhov’s “The Bear,” one by a British group, one by a Russian group and one by Lithuanians.  We understood very little of what was being said in Russian and Lithuanian, but having watched the British do it first, we knew the story line. It was all very well done.

They put us up in a very nice hostel, about 10 miles out of Jonava, that seemed almost new.  We shared that facility with the theatrical group of four from Russia – three women and a guy. They spoke limited English and we spoke limited Russian, so there was nothing to argue about and we got along famously.  The British group was housed nearby. We all rode back and forth on a bus together and were soon singing to each other as we went into and out of Jonava every day.

One day, we were taken to a reconstructed 19th century Lithuanian village, including farm houses with thatched roofs and a beautiful church. Interestingly, we were told the Soviet Union had funded the construction, but it belongs to Lithuania and they are keeping it going. We then visited a monastery that dated back to the 14th century.

Another morning, we went to a high school where Valdas is a teacher. We did a short preview of our acts before about 100 well-dressed, well-behaved students who were bright, polite and interested. There would be no mistaking them for Americans. The British troupe did a short skit and we played “London Homesick Blues” for them.  Later that day we went to the middle school where Zivile teaches dancing, where we saw her dance studio, where she demonstrated great technique on the ballet barre. A group of children greeted us and invited us to join a circle dance.

We were also interviewed by a local journalist who, working with an interpreter, asked about our impressions of Lithuania.  We talked about how impressed we were with the resiliency and spirit of a country, which survived attempts to destroy national identity by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.  Valdas said it best when telling us, “We get along very well with the Russian people.  We hate the Communists.  They bloodied the Russians before they bloodied us.”

The Crystals were front and center on Saturday afternoon giving a concert in the Great Hall, where most of the theatrical productions took place. We had been concerned about their ability to provide a sound system, and we were prepared to go acoustic if we needed to, but our worries were misplaced.  In fact, the Crystals had never had it so good. Our hosts provided Richard with a super drum set and Martin with a keyboard. The sound was perfectly balanced, and the lighting was first rate.

Behind us on a large screen we had graphics for each of the songs in our set (Somehow resourceful Jeff Almen put all this together the night before working with Lithuanian technology). For example, when we played “Johnny B Goode” we had a photo of Chuck Berry on the screen, and we told the audience who he is and about our meeting him a few months ago.  This was a cultural festival, after all, and we wanted to be in the spirit of things. For “Mustang Sally” we had a photo of an attractive woman sitting on the hood of a Mustang.

The eager crowd of 250-300 people was as big an audience they ever got for anything other than political rallies, Valdas told us.  We began with  “Lay Down Sally” and before we were into the chorus, we had about two dozen Lithuanians dancing in front of the stage – which continued throughout our set. When I sang “Mustang Sally,” one of the British actors came up the stage and handed me a pair of sunglasses that I immediately put on. The audience was loving it so much, we added a couple of verses. People in the audience were holding up cigarette lighters (nearly everyone in Lithuania seems to smoke) and there was a real spirit of joy in the air.

At the end, I offered up a new song I composed for them, “Our Lithuania,” which is a rather somber tune. I was concerned it would not fit in with the rocking and rolling, but they seem to love it. When I finished, the audience stood up and began chanting, “Ah shoo, ah shoo,” which is a Lithuania word spelled “Aciu” meaning “thank you.” I was told later than one older lady commented that she had heard of songs Lithuanians had written about America, but this was the first time she had heard of an American writing a song about Lithuania.

Richard finished up with a new song he had composed for the occasion, “Jonava, Our Family,” a farewell message, which was also really well received.  The applause was so strong we felt obliged to provide an encore, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

Late that night, we joined the other participants and many audience members for a late night party, which included dancing to the rousing Lithuanian folk music of another band.  Soon everyone was on the floor dancing – including the Crystals.