5 months & 5 concerts in Norway
My foreign semester in Oslo has certainly exceeded my expectations in terms of the concerts I've been able to visit here. Since it is always special to see bands play in front of their home crowds, I was keeping an eye out on my favourite Norwegian band, the Kings of Convenience, from the very beginning, hoping to be able to catch one of their rare shows while I was in Norway. The acoustic duo from Bergen, sometimes dubbed the Norwegian equivalent of Simon & Garfunkel, has been a favourite of mine for years, yet I had never been able to see them live. At first it looked like this was not going to change, as their website gave no clues whatsoever on an upcoming tour. Erlend Øye has meanwhile settled down in Italy, recently released a solo album ("Legao", for the record) and probably enjoys the warmer climate down there. It then came as a big surprise when I found out in October that the duo was back in Norway for a home visit, playing 2 shows in Bergen and one in Oslo. Needless to say, by the time I read this there were no tickets available anymore because all 3 shows had been sold out within less than an hour. Live shows of the Kings of Convenience are highly sought after all over Europe, and this is even more true for their home country Norway. However, Sunday October 25 ended up being my lucky day: after standing in front of the Rockefeller Music Club in Oslo for an hour, hoping to score some tickets, me and a young Norwegian fella called Isak slipped in last-minute, because two girls (who had already been inside the venue) came out and sold us their tickets. At first I couldn't believe what was happening (for an hour there had been virtually nobody willing to sell any tickets), but one of them apparently felt sick from the stomach, so they both decided to pull out. I had pretty much given up by that time and would've probably left already if it hadn't been for Isak and his friend Felix - a huge KoC fan and himself an aspiring musician - who decided to stay there until the bitter end. And so I completely owe it to them that I was able to see thei Kings of Convenience for the first time, in front of their home crowd, and with a limited audience. The Rockefeller wasn't even filled up to its maximum capacity because Erlend & Eirik planned this as an intimate gig where they would only play their 2001 debut album "Quiet is the new Loud" from start to finish, complemented by an interview with a music journalist from Bergen who had recently written a book about the creation, circumstances and impact of that album.
What has always struck me about KoC is not just the calm beauty and simple sophistication of their songs, but also the relaxed self-confidence & dry humour with which it is presented. Despite all the earnestness in their music these guys never seem to take themselves too seriously, and can have a refreshingly childish humour which i find is very much a characteristic of the Norwegian and Scandinavian societies in general (just check out their music video of "I'd rather dance with you" to see what I mean). All this was at perfect display here, while the three of them were lounging on comfy leather sofas, having a chat and eating the cake that Eirik's aunt had brought for his 40th birthday. After they got up, they transfixed the audience with a stunningly beautiful set, that even included a new song in the encore, so it could well be that there's new material on the way!
The second gig came just one week later, when American Alt-country legend Steve Earle came to play the Rockefeller as well. Again, it was an artist i hadn't been able to see before, so I jumped at the opportunity to see him. I first became aware of him in the late 90's, when he contributed a haunting tune about death penalty ("Ellis Unit One") to the soundtrack of the motion picture "Dead Man Walking" with Susan Sarandon & Sean Penn. I wasn't even listening to country music at the time and had only gotten the album because of Eddie Vedder's involvement, but remember eventually liking the folky/countryish contributions the most, from artists such as Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, Lyle Lovett, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Steve Earle (maybe an indication where my musical tastebuds would eventually lead me). But it wasn't until a few years ago that I again came across the name Steve Earle, this time as an actor. When watching all 5 seasons of HBO's "The Wire", I really liked his character Waylon, even though I wasn't actually aware that he was played by Steve Earle. After I had found out, and also seen him play in "Tremé" (where he plays a street musician who takes a young female musician under his wing) I bought his then-current album "The Low Highway" which I really liked, and only since then do I actually consider myself a Steve Earle fan. He toured Oslo in the wake of the release of "Terraplane", his most recent album (a blues record), which came on the heels of his 7th (!) divorce... no wonder he carried that seen-it-all personality so well in his roles on TV! He's quite a character and very talkative, so his shows are as much worth attending for their musical content as for his on-stage banter, which is often comedic, but then suddenly cuts right to the heart as well. He played a super-long set with 2 encores - unfortunately I had to leave during the last song to catch my bus shortly after midnight, and therefore didn't get a chance to talk to him after the show (he already said at the start that he would be "pimpin' the merch stand" afterwards) and get my vinyl "Terraplane" copy signed - something which I regret in hindsight because I'm sure it would've been worth the wait.
My third concert was the most rowdy affair, but in a good way. I saw another local Norwegian band, but they couldn't have been more different from the Kings of Convenience. It was the cult riff-rock band Turbonegro, who are actually called Turboneger in Norway, but obviously the music industry prevents them to call themselves like that in the German-speaking world! ;) The band has been around for a long time and has a cult following not only in Norway, but around the world, especially in Germany, calling themselves "Turbojugend". As a member of Turbojugend you even adhere to a certain dresscode, which consists of a denim jacket with a patch of your local Turbojugend (usually your home city) and your nickname (each band member has one, and so do the fans). The jacket usually also features as many punkrock buttons & patches you can possibly sew onto it. Other items, such as sailor's hats, glitter, or makeup are more optional. After checking online, I'm seriously considering of turning my old denim jacket at home into one of these uniforms and joining the Turbojugend Vienna, which at the moment seems to be dormant (4 members, according to the band's website). Anyway, the concert was a blast, with regular beer showers in the audience right from the get-go, and strangers hugging themselves while completely going berserk in the moshpit to titles such as "I have erection"... Turbonegro are all about having a good time, and their lyrics often have strong sexual references, not unlike AC/DC or the Eagles of Death Metal, who have recently become known worldwide through the terrible terror attacks at the Bataclan in Paris, an incident which obviously affected Turbonegro as well: they were sporting a French flag on one of their Marshall stacks, and singer Tony admitted that the Bataclan attack hit "very close to home" for the band. The only song I knew beforehand was "Get it on", but it didn't really matter, the choruses were usually easy to figure out and sing along to. Their encore ended with a fun 80's rock medley, where each band member was introduced with a different song, before they finally walked off the stage in style with Starship's "We built this city" playing over the PA! :)
The 4th concert came shortly before my flight back home. It was the only artist I had seen before, and again, a local Scandinavian - if not Norwegian, than at least Swedish, and from the city of Gotenburg, which is only a 3 hour drive from Oslo. I am talking about introspective guitarist & songwriter José Gonzales, whom I've once seen with his band JUNIP in Vienna a few years ago - a concert that I actually didn't enjoy very much (i remember we even left earlier), but I knew this one would be a different affair, because José Gonzales' fluent guitar picking and fragile voice are much more effective when not drowned out by a full band. He did have other musicians to support him here as well, but they only provided a second nylonstring guitar, percussion and some sparse keyboards and backing vocals, all serving the guitar playing of José - his intricate picking really using the virtues of a nylonstring guitar to great advantage, and the rolling basslines giving his playing such a power, even when it's just him and his guitar. Over 3 solo albums he really created something of a niche for himself, his distinct sound & voice are immediately recognizable and there is no one who sounds quite like him! His set consisted mostly of new songs from his most recent (third) album "Vestiges & Claws", as well as the most popular songs from his previous albums "Veneer" and "In our nature". The new songs bear the same trademark sound, but where "In our nature" had a very dark undercurrent, the new record seems to be somewhat lighter and more positive in tone. Chateau-Neuf, the Norwegian students' association headquarters near Majorstuen in Oslo, also proved to be a great venue - a steep amphitheatre, and where I sat (Row 5, in a central position) the sound was just fantastic.
Just one day later I attended my fifth and last concert in Oslo: en julekonsert, a Christmas concert at the Opera House, featuring some Norwegian opera singers as well as a children's choir. They were tastefully accompanied by a pianist and a small string orchestra and if i comprehended more Norwegian i probably would've understood more of the "plot" which unfolded in front of me, although it was of course merely a vehicle for (and driven by) the various songs. I really enjoyed the performance, though i was also struggling to stay awake at some point; as much as I appreciate the technical skill of these singers and the musicianship of the orchestra, the whole classical music & opera scene will never truly be my thing, it's just a little too cerebral for me! And while it's stunning to hear them hit all the right notes and have these amazingly trained voices, the constant high-pitched singing and permanent use of vibrato just becomes tiring after a while, at least for me. On 2 songs the audience was asked to join in, and after being at the Christmas Tree Lighting in Kringsjå, the Julefest in the Svalbard Church, and the "Lucia" performance in the Swedish Church in Oslo i must say I am slowly getting proficient at Norwegian Christmas songs. "Jul, Jul" is the ultimate Norwegian Christmas song, but "Hark the herald angel sings" seems to be equally popular here. Anyway, the concert was a nice and fitting end to my semester and now I'm ready to fly home for Christmas!