On the occasion of his 66th birthday last year, documentary film-maker, singer-songwriter, musician, author of theatre plays and writer Jiří Vondrák released a double album, one representative of his musical activities at large rather than a selection of his best-known material. Despite the title this is no “best of” collection, instead it’s a noteworthy mix of hits and rare pieces, old songs and new songs, and modern folk and rock pieces. As such it serves as a great introduction to Vondrák, a Renaissance man of culture in Brno, as well as a collector’s item featuring recordings not released elsewhere or almost impossible to find. The first half of the double CD really packs a punch, too.
Jiří Vondrák arrived on the scene as part of a duo with Antonín Bodlák in the late 1960s, going on to work with many musicians and bands (not only) from South Moravia, their list would be a solid encyclopaedia Who’s Who of artists. This double album touches on such moments in his career, particularly with Vondrák as an s an interpret or exactly author and interpret. It presents still fresh work by the folk duo Vondrák, Bodlák and Polák, sadly reduced to a duo through the recent passing from COVID-19 of Michal Polák, a singer with the band Synkopy who joined the original duo at a later stage, along with tracks from a past solo album by Vondrák entitled Šansony a písně (Chansons and Songs). There are also solo miniature pieces and recent recordings made with Milan Vidlák, the latter were originally intended for a delayed solo album that might still be a work in progress. The second CD showcases his collaboration with singer Pavel Váně, whether as VKV – a folk trio including Pavel Kopřiva, or Bowle, a rock outfit with Richard Lašek on drums as its third member. While VKV’s recordings are still available on the album Fialový víkend (Lilac Weekend) released by the Indies Happy Trail a few years ago, a set of live tracks entitled Bowle Live is no longer distributed. This is why live recordings of Bowle, featured on the disc, got more space. From a documentary point of view, it's okay, moreover, this band successfully played abroad, and Jiří Vodrák's stories about how John Mayall and Keith Richards applauded them in Germany are breath-taking. On the other hand, the live atmosphere of the clubs and the sense of freedom in the 1990s is a little absent, meaning the tracks lose some of their charm. Repeated listens of Punková píseň hrůzyplná (The Terrifying Punk Song) or punky Sem tam (Here and There) reveals a certain lack of strength compared to the recent folk song Neruš (Don’t Disturb), as performed by VKV.
Jiří Vodrák focused on his author´s work. An important aspect is that skills of Jiří Vondrák at interpreting works by others are left out, namely translated pieces by Bulat Okudzhava, fortunately available on the Modrý balónek (Blue Inflatable Balloon) album. On the contrary, his chanson work is adequate: already mentioned album Šansony a písně (Chansons and Songs) from 1994, compositions from a few years back, such as Frajer (Dandy), Starý malíř (Old Painter) or popular Takhle končí víkend (This is How the Weekend Ends) – an interesting look at the last moments of a life. As Vondrák is no hit-maker and can’t be heard on the radio, the boundaries between well-known songs and those less familiar are blurred. However, songs like Barvy (Colours) or Neruš (Don’t Disturb), and the more recent Frajer (Dandy) are ambitious enough in scope to garner wider appeal. The small pieces on the album like Dárek (Gift) or Starý pán (Old Gentleman) are forthright in their seriousness and message and shall pleasantly surprise and entertain unprepared listeners, though there’s less chance of them being played frequently. Paying attention to the CD in its entirety reveals some real gems from his back catalogue including Lítost (Regret), a poem by Jiří Orten set to music, and Příkazy rozkazy (Commands & Orders) aka Pusťte mne do řady (Let Me Queue Up), which seems to have been unintentionally listed under both titles in the accompanying booklet. Interestingly, although the collection was released as a double CD, it could have fitted on a single disc. The thinking behind it was to separate the special sound of Bowle on a CD of its own, yet the tracks by VKV match them so well in mood they could have comprised the first half of that particular disc. Hence, the two discs can be characterised as one without Pavel Váňa and the other with him.
Some will remember Jiří Vondrák from the TV documentaries’ Legendy folku a country (Folk & Country Legends), Básníci Evropy (Poets of Europe) and Uprostřed běhu (When Running). His name is also linked with books on the band Synkopy, Franta Kocourek and Hana and Petr Ulrych, the well-known brother and sister duo. As for theatre, he worked closely with Jiří Suchý on productions for Divadlo šansonu (The Theatre of Chanson) in Brno, and the staging of fairy tales from the book Pohádky z Dobráčkova (Tales of Good Town). Jiří Vondrák is all of this and more, and the “Best Of” collection should’ve taken it into account. Nevertheless, let’s be grateful for what is a portrait of Jiří Vondrák as the singer-songwriter and rock musician. Not everything on this double CD has withstood the test of time, but the vast majority still sound fresh today, so it makes sense to draw attention to them again.
Jiří Vondrák – Best Of / 66. Released by: Indies Happy Trails. 13 + 9 songs, total track length: 32:49 + 31:43