a-ha: Gifted sons of Norway make a triumphant return to their native country
This concert review is by US-based Lax Madapaty – our guest blogger and an ardent a-ha fan that traveled far to make sure he could be ours eyes and ears on the ground.
Date: April 30, 2016
Venue: Oslo Spektrum
Tour: Cast In Steel
Norwegian pop/rock trio a-ha‘s re-emergence after having officially split at the end of 2010 with their global “Ending on a high note” concert tour was one of the greatest surprises in the music industry in 2015. It was a bold and risky move in the context of their credibility – which was bound to be questioned in light of their formal “farewell’ announcement in 2010. Some perceived that as being deceptive. Many went as far as saying that the band was milking their legacy yet again and capitalizing on a latent sense of nostalgia. The band’s first attempt (a very successful one in our humble opinion) at diluting this skepticism was with their brilliant album “Cast in Steel“. Dramatic and hook-laden for the most part, it was an expansion of their legacy in every sense of the word. Songs such as “Cast in Steel“, “Giving up the ghost“, and “Objects in the mirror” are a-ha essentials that no casual or ardent fan should make the mistake of skipping over. If there was any lingering skepticism or resentment towards the band, odds are, a-ha’s “Cast in Steel” tour has eradicated every bit of it. Their concert at the Oslo Spektrum on April 30 was evidence of that.
Oslo as a city is of great significance to the band’s history. It is where the band’s members are from and it is where their unbridled ambition and love for music together formed the foundation of a creative union that has lasted over 30 years – while leaving a legacy that the passage of time is highly unlikely to tarnish. The Spektrum is an important venue too as it was where a-ha first bid farewell in 2010 to an audience that left the concert attendees with lumps in their hearts.
The band kicked off their set in high gear with the uptempo “I’ve Been Losing You” (from their sophomore album “Scoundrel Days“). The choice of the opening song reveals a deeper understanding on a-ha’s part of their fanbase. While media outlets (especially in the US) indulge in an almost disproportionate focus on a-ha’s debut album “Hunting High and Low“, the fans that have been part of the band’s journey from the very beginning hail “Scoundrel Days” as a-ha’s most significant musical milestone. a-ha’s nod to these fans intensified with their second song “Cry Wolf” – another fantastic uptempo track from “Scoundrel Days“. This notion of indulging the ardent fans versus the casual fans is taken a step further with “Move to Memphis” from their “Memorial Beach” album (recorded at the late Prince‘s Paisley Park studios outside Minneapolis). It is great to see a band catering to their audience even if in doing so, they might be challenging a contrasting view of the mainstream media through the choices of songs.
The band took a multi-faceted approach to embodying a spirit of surprise and a deviation from convention in this concert. First, it was through the inclusion of songs in the set-list that were not released as singles and hence considered obscure by the casual fan. Noteworthy examples include “Mother nature goes to heaven” (from the wildly successful “Foot of the mountain” album), “Here I stand and face the rain” (the stunning closer of from the “Hunting high and low” album), and “She’s humming a tune” (from the “Cast In Steel” album). “Here I Stand And Face The Rain” was one of the concert’s highlights. Featuring the highly acclaimed Anneli Drecker (formerly of dream-pop band Bel Canto) on the song’s first verse, and a 7-screen visual backdrop of stained glass images from the Oslo Domkirke (the main church for the Church of Norway Diocese of Oslo), the performance was a celebration of both a forgotten gem and a-ha’s native country’s rich cultural heritage.
The second layer of this element of surprise and deviation from convention came in the form of Paul Waktaar and Magne Furuholmen showcasing their vocal chops while lead singer Morten Harket stepped away from the microphone. Paul Waktaar performed vocal duties on “Velvet” – a song that was originally recorded by his band Savoy and then re-recorded on a-ha’s first post-hiatus album “Minor Earth Major Sky“. Magne Furuholmen played rhythm guitar on this track. Magne then sang vocals on “Lifelines” a track he wrote that eventually ended up being a title track for a-ha’s follow-up to “Minor Earth Major Sky“. This layer is more than a glimpse into the vocal abilities of gentlemen that were not lead singers for this band. It is a nod to the fact that the band, was in essence, a union of three incredibly talented musicians in their own right with strong (and sometimes conflicting) sonic identities, and personalities. The fact that they were able to survive as a cohesive unit for all these years in the midst of this reality is commendable. In an interview many years ago about going solo, international superstar Sting suggested that there is no room for democracy in art. He was referring to his years with The Police – the band that propelled him to rock royalty. a-ha might have proved him wrong, to an extent, through their existence. The performances of “Lifelines” and “Velvet” serve as effective reminders of that.
a-ha‘s return to convention is through the concert’s two encores. Encore 1 featured their UK #1 hit “The Sun Always Shines on TV“, “Under the makeup” (the lead single from “Cast in Steel“), and “The Living Daylights” (the James Bond theme from the movie with the same name). Encore 2, rather unsurprisingly, was reserved for the band’s signature hit “Take On Me“.
As a live act, over the years, a-ha has delivered on the expectation of being the gift that keeps giving. Their performance at the Oslo Spektrum demonstrated a progression on this tradition of theirs. Backed by an ensemble of talented musicians including bass player Evan Olmstead and drummer Karl Winnberg, the band understand what it takes to bring their songs to life in a live setting. The effective use of “visual real estate” on a 7-screen backdrop manifested itself through images from the Oslo Domkirke and photos of Magne and Paul as children and those of the homes and neighborhoods in which they grew up.
One of the inherent challenges with a ten-album legacy is being able to showcase it in a ninety-minute concert set-list. This challenge is amplified further by a desire to offer fans a greater glimpse into their catalogs through the inclusion of non-singles. Compromises and noteworthy omissions are inevitable in this scenario. “Summer moved on” (from the “Minor Earth Major Sky” album) – the track that broke a-ha to a new generation of European and Asian fans was the first of these. The “Analogue” album was conspicuous by its absence on the set-list. This is a shame because its rock sound demonstrated a versatility that the mainstream press had never formerly associated with a-ha. It also challenged their being categorized by media outlets as a “synth-pop” band. Fortunately, a-ha compensated for this exclusion by showcasing their snarl on a hard-rock rendition of “Sycamore Leaves” (from their “East of The Sun,West of The Moon” album).
To return, does not necessarily mean to rehash. Those that attended the final Oslo Spektrum shows in 2010 could vouch for the fact that the concert on April 30, 2016 was not a repetition of that show. In fact, there is only roughly a 50% overlap between the set-lists of the April 30 show and the final show in 2010. Furthermore, a-ha’s deeper exploration of the band’s creative nuclei and catalog suggests an experimental streak, a commitment to offer something new, and a propensity to surprise. a-ha is a Scandinavian treasure to be cherished. One can only hope that they continue to dig into their creative wells further and expand the soundtrack to the lives of their fans.
STAR RATING: 5 out of 5 STARS
We are an American internet radio station that broadcasts worldwide. The station features an eclectic mix of current pop and rock music from both sides of the Atlantic alongside hits, forgotten gems, and rarities from the last three decades. The music of a-ha (both old and new) is a regular staple on our radio station. The music (both old and new) of a-ha is a regular staple on our station – including songs from the “Cast In Steel” album. We also play plenty of newer music by bands that rose to prominence in the 80s. Noteworthy examples include Tears For Fears, Duran Duran, Camouflage, Spandau Ballet, George Michael, INXS, Depeche Mode, Johnny Hates Jazz, Simple Minds, and Culture Club.
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