[Concert Review] a-ha / Oslo / 2001

a-ha live at VallhallVenue: Vallhall, Oslo, Norway
Artist: a-ha
Date: 25/03/2001

Set List: 1 Minor Earth | Major Sky; 2 Sun Never Shone That Day; 3 Little Black Heart; 4 I’ve Been Losing You; 5 Manhattan Skyline; 6 Thought That It Was You; 7 I Wish I Cared; 8 Cry Wolf; 9 Mary Ellen Makes The Moment Count; 10 Stay On These Roads; 11 Early Morning; 12 You’ll Never Get Over Me; 13 Velvet; 14 Sun Always Shines on TV; 15 The Living Daylights; 16 Hunting High and Low; (encore) 17 Summer Moved On; 18 Crying in the Rain; 19 Take On Me; 20 Angel in the Snow

Lunatic? Crazy? Obsessed? Or am I just an intrepid fan who does it for the love of music and adventure?

1980s pop legends A-ha returned to their home country for a double barrelled live assault in the brand new Vallhall football arena in Oslo. Over Saturday and Sunday, the 24th & 25th March, 25,000 fans packed into the venue to see if time has been kind to Morten, Paul and Magne, as they continued promotion of their current platinum album, “Minor Earth | Major Sky”. Both nights presented identical set-lists – I attended the Sunday night concert.

The warm up acts certainly needed to warm us up – Oslo is cold this time of year. Anneli Drecker entertained us for about thirty minutes, and was later to appear on stage again to sing backing vocals for several a-ha songs and also duet on the Everley Brothers ‘Crying in the Rain’. During her own set, it was obvious her powerful voice was impressing the arena, even if the songs were not instantly memorable.

After a brief break, Norway’s brand new musical shining star, Briskeby, tore through nearly an hour of high-octane rock music that their CD did not indicate they were capable of – try and imagine a cross between Elastica and Placebo and you’ll get an idea of what a talent they are. The crowd were fired up as they sung along to a band who have just captured the equivalent of four Norwegian “Grammys” including the award for Best Band. As soon as they realised that we were all deaf, they left the stage, making way for A-ha.

Finally, after much clapping and chanting, a gentle orchestral introduction prepared us for the arrival of the three Norwegians and their backing band. We knew what it was leading to of course – the thundering opening chords of ‘Minor Earth | Major Sky’ – the crowd went bananas. As perfect a concert opener as A-ha have probably ever produced, the beams swung around the stage as Magne pounded his keyboard and Paul strummed his guitar with vigour. Meanwhile Morten patrolled the stage, shirt wide open, leather trousers leaving him with no room to breath it seemed, microphone pressed to his lips, as he sung this tale of insignificance to the 13,000 entranced fans.

Keeping the fast tempo going, current German radio single, ‘The Sun Never Shone That Day’ followed, before they launched into the William Orbit-inspired ‘Little Black Heart’ – a song with more emotion and power in live performance than on the studio cut. Old material followed – the disappointingly anaemic version of the outstanding 1986 hit, ‘I’ve Been Losing You’ and the off-beat power-ballad, ‘Manhattan Skyline’ (yup, lighters out time). The crowd were really pumped and A-ha chatted, thanking those who had travelled from foreign climes to be there (hey, that’s me!).

There was then a double-take from their current release. The Morten Harket-penned ‘Thought That it Was You’ working particularly well, as did the brilliantly cynical ‘I Wish I Cared’ which featured beautiful backing from Anneli Drecker.

Arguably the concerts poorest moment came next – the dreadful 1987 top five hit, ‘Cry Wolf’, but the crowd didn’t mind and completely lapped it up. All they got to do is replace the synths with some guitar and it could be a good rocker, but as it stands it’s just not very good. Too cheesy.

The Beatles-esque ‘Mary Ellen Makes the Moment Count’ makes an amazing translation to the live stage. A track about experiencing loneliness (check the back catalogue, melancholy is the basis for much of A-ha’s career), the chorus powerfully portrays undeniable determination, desperation and passion. A song that didn’t ruffle many fans feathers on “ME|MS” release last year (despite receiving much critical acclaim), you could tell that many were in awe during the performance. Sheer brilliance.

The band toned things down as the three band members got together for acoustic performances of the beautiful ballad, ‘Stay on These Roads’ from 1988 (a song that sounds far better now than it did in it’s over-produced form of 13 years ago), and the eerie 1990 single ‘Early Morning’.

Two of the latest album’s best moments were next. Magne stepped out from behind the keyboards, grabbed an acoustic guitar, and joined Morten and Paul in the centre of the stage for a stunning version of ‘You’ll Never Get Over Me’. For me it was a real defining moment for the band. After all the troubles, all the stereotypes and all the obstacles, 17 years on the same three guys were standing shoulder-to-shoulder wowing a crowd like they probably never thought they would again.

‘Velvet’ unsurprisingly went down a storm. Originally written and performed by Paul’s own band, Savoy, ‘Velvet’, is featured in forthcoming Hollywood movie, “One Night at McCools” starring Liv Tyler, John Goodman and Michael Douglas. Many expect this European hit to repeat a similar feat in the UK should it get the airplay. Anneli once again sung beautifully behind Morten and all you could see was 12,000 fans mouthing the words in perfect unison with the Norwegian front-man.

But no matter how great the new material is, you can’t beat the old stuff. And A-ha went into a retro-attack with the classic trio of ‘Sun Always Shines on TV’, ‘Living Daylights’ and ‘Hunting High and Low’. The former had no problem in being the all-time classic that it is (well U2 did base their Grammy award winning ‘Beautiful Day’ on it after all), but ‘Living Daylights’ exceeded expectations as A-ha blasted a wonderfully powerful version of the Bond theme.

The music stopped, the crowd continued to sing ‘Innnnnnn the Living Dayliiiights’ until finally the band kicked back in with guitars blasting and the final couplet of ‘set your hopes up way too high | the living’s in the way you die’. Track finished? Nope. With the stage lights off, the crowd took the opportunity to continue their singing where they had left off. Finally the band kicked off again leading us into a crescendo of noise and excitement. It was loud, decadent and unforgettable.

‘Hunting High and Low’ showed again why A-ha were such a wonderful band all those years ago, as they still are now. A marvellous tune, exquisitely performed and still stands up to any melancholic ballad you care to name these days.

So it was concert over. The band left, the crowd went ‘eh, think you forgot a few’.

Damn right. They returned minutes later to perform comeback single, ‘Summer Moved On’ (including the famous 20-second note), the Everley’s ‘Crying in the Rain’ (a 1990 hit single) and the classic ‘Take On Me’.

So that’s it show over then.

Well so everyone thought, but with the exits starting to empty, the band returned again! Their final track of the night was the first track they performed from their under-rated 1993 album, “Memorial Beach” – ‘Angel in the Snow’ – a song that Paul wrote for his wife, Lauren Savoy, on the occasion of their wedding. And yes, it was a fitting finale as the band assembled on the centre of the stage and strummed on this tender melody (the song that Morten once described as one you just want to hug).

Nearly two hours on, it was all over. Concert success is measured on the amount of pleasure that an audience garners from the experience. And on that scale, this concert was a huge success. It wasn’t without problems. The opening few songs were slightly hindered by sound problems, but that’s not an unusual scenario as the sound guys make the fine tuning necessary, and the stage was slightly banal with no bells and whistles. Morten also struggled with a few of the higher notes, but hey when you sing with the range this guy has, you are going to struggle occasionally. It was still a stunning vocal performance from one of the great singers of our era.

The range of hits was exceptional. Okay you might always complain about a few being left out. There was no ‘Blood That Moves the Body’, ‘Dark Is Night for All’ or ‘Move to Memphis’, but we’d have been there all night. The new material sounded wonderful, and the old stuff was just as good (with the odd exception). Also, crowd participation was hugely encouraged by Morten. The crowd got the opportunity to sing along themselves to ‘Manhattan Skyline’, ‘Living Daylights’ and ‘Hunting High and Low’.

The concert was rated with numerous “six out of six” reviews by the Norwegian press. You think that’s inevitable? No way. A-ha have been passed over by their own media for a long time. I was on a bus after the concert chatting with some English, Irish and Norwegian fans. The English lad shook his head and said to two of the Norwegian fans: ‘it’s a damn shame that your country does not appreciate what a brilliant band you have there’.

Too right.

The concert is to be released on video and DVD (details at http://www.a-ha.com).

With a new album due in the next twelve months, I hope it is one that breaks A-ha in the UK again so that I won’t have to travel so far next time.


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