5:12 p.m.: It’s the second of two free early-evening Polarjazz concerts by local musicians at Svalbard Hotell and, just to make one thing clear after the “it’s not jazz” ramblings I’ve voiced this week and over the years, longtime coal miner and resident J.G. Hansen is doing a solo acoustic folk set and he’s kicking ass. So I have no problems venturing outside the genre, especially when what’s being played captures the best elements of what jazz has to offer.
Here’s emotion, connection with the audience and a sense of listing to a musician rather than a performer (the latter sings greatest hits safely in the margins of what the audience is familiar with and puts the emphasis on stagemanship). In the spirit of writing what I know, my first comparison of Hansen is to U.S. folk legend Greg Brown (although a few timbres less deep), a master musical storyteller I’ve heard perform the same “hit” song a dozen very different ways live, frequently with interjected thoughts and lyrics. In short, someone who sees creativity and spontaneity as blessed tools rather than a risk.
And looking at tonight’s lineup (aside from a youth-only concert aimed at teens) all of it holds promise as variations of this “may not be jazz, but still is awesome” character.
Anyhow, hope that clarifies what I’m listening for as I write these rants. Obviously your listener preferences may vary. Now, on with the sideshow.
(Note: A lot of disruptions kept me from hitting “send” on the updates below about the gig and the move over the Kulturhuset before the night shows. Sorry about that.)
5:23 p.m.: One of the reasons Hansen sounds fresh is because he is: he’s only been performing about a year and that was because he was among a handful of Mine 7 workers featured in the Norwegian TV reality series “Kompani Spitsbergen.” He says the crew wanted to film him doing something in life outside work and, since he know how to play the guitar, he started singing as well and his first “performance” was having the camera in his face. That’s certainly a quick way to experience/get over stage fright. He’s done a few gigs since.
He’s also written seven original songs and opening this evening’s set with “Coal Mining Problem in a Tourist Town” you’ve got a pretty good idea of where he’s coming from (and it’s rather intriguing he’s singing in English, although visiting listeners seemed to immediately locked into it). He lost his mining work due to the massive layoffs of the past few years and is now part of the crew tearing down the Svea mine that was the liveblood of town for quite a while, so he’s got the classic resume for penning folk songs about struggles in Svalbard. He can sing about the rugged old days of “working under a glacier is not everybody’s cup of tea” and resignedly muse about how “maybe it’s best to let the old ways die.”
5:46 p.m.: OK, he’s not above covers (“Crazy About A Mercury”) and when he’s singing about misery in a southwest desert under a New World Order “with a hole in your guy and a gun in your hand” it’s probably not relating on-the-job experience. But he carries it and something needs to fill a show of an hour or so if he’s going to keep doing these. (He says he doesn’t see doing it frequently since there aren’t many local venues, but I’m thinking with tourism season approaching there’s probably some kind of audience).
6:01 p.m.: Well, turns out that wasn’t even an hour. He stopped just after the last post and what I thought was a break between sets was the end. He immediately got hugs from some young women sitting near the stage who appeared to be strangers, so he’s learning one of the rewards of being a lumberjack with a guitar and husky voice (proverbially speaking).
And with that it’s off to Kulturhuset for the main stuff…
8:02 p.m: A bit past the official starting time (of course), but some immediate interesting observations. The first-ever seating section I was puzzling about last night (as in, there didn’t really seem to be one) is obvious tonight in the form of a barrier across the floor maybe five meters back from the stage and a couple of rows of chairs in front of them. Actually, there’s two barriers – the other one is maybe a meter from the stage, so those in chairs can just barely see over it in terms of viewing the performers head-to-toe. While it feels a bit curious it clearly would be a problem if the standing folks crowded in front of the sitters, so it makes sense even if it takes a bit away from the “intimacy” between the performer and audience. It’s also a sign of how tonight and tomorrow are the “main” nights compared to Thursday. At the moment there’s not many people in here, but I suspect that will change within minutes when the action starts.
Meanwhile, in the VIP gathering area upstairs they’re serving pizza tonight instead of the hot dogs from last night. Also sensible, since that’s what the commoners are being sold in the lobby below. Based on past experience let’s just say the quality is competent, but probably not the best in town (a hesitant qualifier because I’ve yet to find one place that consistently does good pizza – something to do with lots of kitchen staff turnover would be my first guess). I mention this only because assuming I make it the youth club for their concert later I’ll be curious if they decided to order from somewhere else.
8:14 p.m.: GURLS are up. Very sparse setup. Hanna Paulsberg playing a tenor sax, Ellen Andrea Wang on upright acoustic bass and Rohey Taalah in the middle singing (actually, a mix of vocals and hums/noises). The former two have played with some major names of jazz, yet it’s Taalah who immediately grabs attention beyond being at the physical center. Opening piece is cery mellow and very pleasant. Also very simple – the instrumentalists are basically repeating very simple vamps and Taalah is doing most of the “conversing” as such. Presumably they’ll start conversing with each other in various ways as things progress. (Note: plan is to go back and fill in names, etc. later so all this is less generic).
8:20 p.m.: Took a look at the crowd as the group starts its next song (“Pork Chop Lover,” which not surprisingly is soulful and sassy). The seats seem full, but the standing crowd is similar or smaller Thursday’s. And maybe I’m not shocked (just a bit sad) since this definitely appears to be outside anything that might be sold as mainstream. Anyhow, the trio’s trying to get the audience into it with call-and-response on the main chorus lyrics. We’re also getting to know each of the players better as Taalah’s starting to considerably expand her range and the players to the side are getting beyond riffs.
8:26 p.m.: Next piece gets going with the instrumentals using their instruments for percussion, setting a nice tempo and rhythm to snag the audience. And they’re definitely starting to talk to each other. This is good stuff.
8:34 p.m.: As for lyrics, right now it’s stuff like “this bitch is ready, this bitch is fine” to a steady funkish backbeat. Make your own judgements.
8:36 p.m.: Um, OK, now I’m thinking they’re mixing a similar beat from the last song with interludes using the scheme as Michael Jackson’s “P.Y.T.” for some kind of gotta-work-on-this-relationship narrative. Next song seems to take a modification of the latter and combine it with a pretty simply music poetry beat with versions “I will blow you any time of the day.” Bizarre.
8:45 p.m.: Not to send everybody elsewhere, but I’m not the only one live online right now – and he’s got video! Roger Zahl Ødegård, if you don’t know the name, is the city’s longtime cultural programs advisor so he’s pretty much at everything. He’s been posting videos from concerts throughout the festival, so those wanting to get a taste from afar should check out his Facebook page.
Meanwhile Taalah is trying to justify her massive shopping bills (“do you think I woke up like this?” and about movin’ up and movin’ on (“I think I need different kind of man”). Call it urban street verse over very minimal accompaniment.
8:55 p.m.: As we get presumably near the end show it’s clear Taalah is more than literally front and center, since her singing and scat is dominating the performance. Her mates are chipping in around the edges, but ultimately their role is to provide a steady harmonic and rhythmic cadence rather than fully engage. And that makes it very listenable. A free-jazz-for-all definitely has its place as well, but considering the already limited crowd (I just noticed the VIP area is nearly empty) this definitely isn’t the place for it. (Also, I confess being a bit weary tonight it’d be more than my brain would appreciate – so if I have nothing else in common with anyone else here at least it’s that need-to-unwind Friday fatigue that makes what I’m hearing entirely welcome).
9:01 p.m.: The end? Probably not. The audience is clapping for an encore and I’m sure they’ll get one. Still can’t figure out why it didn’t happen with Janove last night who’s a way bigger “name.”
9:03 p.m.: Encore. Very slow and mellow soul ballad. Taalah’s dancing between very low warbles and high hums. A couple of minutes of a sauntering a bass solo accompanied by fingersnaps and hums. Building up on the vocal frisking at the start to a high finale. A lot of applause. If you’re going to finish a show low and slow, that’s the way to do it.
9:09 p.m.: Easily my favorite concert of the festival so far and in the upper echelon of memorable ones over the years – and the least attended so far other than the hotel lounge ones. Pretty much says it all in terms of my living in Opposite World when it comes to perceptions of what’s on stage. And some would no doubt say real life.
9:34 p.m.: I just walked across the street to the youth center where a teens-only concert is being performed by online rock star Vidar Villa, and I’m not sure I’d rather spend my evening here rather than there despite my tendency to ridicule Idol and virtual icons (his promo is “he made his breakthrough as an artist in 2017, 20 million streams in 8 months without the help of radio or media coverage, due to his popular and humorous lyrics with catchy melodies and catchy hooks”). The center’s recreation room is maybe half full with about 50 teens, but they’re all having a grand time bopping and singing along to entirely amicable beats and lyrics. Villa and his four bandmates certainly seen to be having fun entertaining them, and – thank God – they’re not making the too-common mistake of equating music/fun factor with volume (not saying the beat can’t be heard/felt from the entryway at Kulturhuset, but nobody’s likely to go home with painfully ringing eardrums). Nice pick.
It’s getting close to elbowing room in the cafe area at Kulturhuset. I stopped at the album area near the entrance and talked to Taalah, who said her trio was lured to the festival by listeners elsewhere on the mainland who urged the group to experience this place. She said they went out on a snowmobile tour today and are scheduled to go dogsledding tomorrow (forecast is for temps just below freeze and little wind, making the hours under the long twilight much more enjoyable). That’s the kind of fringe benefits that used to be enough to fill the roster.
10:02 p.m.: Wow. The second concert starts almost on time and, like the first, opens very mellow. Sol Heilo, a singer and multi-instrumentalist who plays all of the map in terms of genre, does a folk vocal/guitar number basically alone (a few whips from a background synth). I last saw her when she was here as part of a four-woman punk/rock/ethnic/whatever band called Katzenjammer. Talk about serious (not-so-serious, actually) cats. And, really, I mean cats – one graced the face of some absurdly large sitarish thing Heilo was playing. So I’m not expecting mellow and calm for long.
10:09 p.m.: Sure enough, she introduces the next song by noting the large marching drum strapped to her back, and when she two members of her band (others not on stage yet) start off with yet another mellow melody it doesn’t stay that way long, veering into rockish territory before retreating at the end. I cheated and just looked at her Wikipedia page (“Sol works in different genres, such as folk, rock, pop, bluegrass, classical, blues, soul, country, tribe, klezmer and electronica. Her instruments are drums, trumpet, bass, guitar, melodic percussion, ukulele, domra, banjo, balalaika, zither, harp, flute, accordion, piano, harmonica and mandolin”)and it’s safe to assume I’m expecting a whole bunch of mingling sounds during the next hour or whatever.
10:18 p.m.: Just took a look at the crowd. Looks roughly comparable to the Janove concert yesterday in that the room is nearly full, you can move freely. That’s not good in terms of the total numbers needed to keep the festival going. Also, interestingly, the seating section is gone. Considering the seats for the first show were filled that’s a little strange, but apparently they don’t appeal to this crowd and/or the folks organizers were hoping to lure still stayed away.
10:30 p.m.: Overall impression of the concert so far: not nearly as fun as Katzenjammer (which also had the clothes and other flourishes for it…worth mentioning they played the youth concert one year), but probably better music as a whole. Certainly more wide-ranging and nuanced.
10:35 p.m.: So if this year’s festival attendance does end up disappointing, where to go from here? Dark Season Blues is already talking about taking the coming year off – a seemingly impossible thought if you’re not responsible for the pursestrings – and it’s terribly painful to contemplate Polarjazz doing the same. If they did what seems the most viable now, say, one Friday concert with a “name” plus a lineup Saturday much like now (a free kids show at noon, an early-afternoon show like this year’s lounge gigs, an early evening acoustic show in a pub guaranteed to sellout its relatively limited tickets, two main Saturday night concerts and a midnight dance party) would it still qualify as a legit festival? Would it save/generate enough money to overcome the fixed costs of staging one? And that’s just the beginning of a very long thought process of alternatives. I’m immensely glad I haven’t been and wont’ be responsible for grappling with such questions and responsibilities for months on end.
10:44 p.m.: Festival Director Lasse Stener Hansen mentioned approaching hotels/pubs/etc. about taking over part/some of the festival, so it’ll be interesting to hear how the gigs at Svalbard Hotell worked out for them. One thought he had was returning to the days 15 years ago when regional musicians (with more emphasis on jazz at the time) were lured here at low or no cost. Since the lounge gigs were free that’d obviously be a given. But since he said the hotels are already full, the question is if Svalbard Hotell picked up any business it normally doesn’t on those nights.
11:02 p.m.: The end – or not (again)! Healthy doze of encore applause for what was coming anyhow. The show never quite got as eclectic as I might have hoped, but all of it was very listenable both in terms of playing and performance. This is something of a dark/spooky sad ballad with a steady driving beat and sharp electric guitar hits and electronic organ wails. And, hey, a song whose main lyrics are “I don’t want to be lonely” works as a chat-up for any chance encounters in the crowd 😉
11:12 p.m.: Hey, since I’m singing off and talking about hookups, how could I forget an early Polarjazz personal classic involving Katzenjammer? Their drummer tried to hit on me during someone else’s concert – maybe the very last time that has or ever will happen. Even at my 40ish age then I was utterly clueless about handling such stuff…and besides, there’s no way I’d have any punk rock appeal after I’d said/did anything beyond “hello.” So I did what I’m good at..asked a bunch of questions about her and her visit here until the music got going and I had to get back to work.
Don’t think of that as the most pathetic bedtime story ever – rather, it’s something to make you immensely glad about your social skills/life, even if things seem rather in the dump(ed) right now.
Tomorrow starts with the krazy kids show at noon. See you then (OK, probably not, but check things out later anyhow).