Noon: Marathon day at Polarjazz, with stuff happening in various parts of town now, at 1 p.m., 5 p.m., 8 p.m., 10 p.m. and midnight Sunday into the wee hours. Just the thing when you’re reaching that state of being fried that comes after three days of getting a few hours a sleep a night at most covering music and other things in real life. But since next year’s festival may not be long enough to induce burnout, I’m making sure I get the full experience (OK, be warned now I may cut out early on the midnight show because I almost always do).
12:11 p.m.: Even the kids’ concert starts fashionably late – and like the grown-ups there seems to be something of a sparse crowd here compared to previous festivals. As with so much else, the loss of families lately due to mining layoffs is having a huge community impact – and reverses one of the main goals the government’s supposedly had for Svalbard for a few decades.
But on to the music by Klangbein, a duo consisting of Norwegian Ole Jørn Myklebust n trumpet and Morten Barrikmo on clarinet. At the start it as close to free jazz as we’ve had yet at the festival. Both playing snatches of phrases individually. Sometimes harmonious with a teasing turn toward individual kids. Sometimes literally and musically wandering and having to be brought back by the other. Sometimes playing together. Short, but fun (now add to this in doses once a day and in a year you could have a five-year-old addicted to Ornette Coleman – not sure if that’s terrific or terrifying).
12:23 p.m.: Seriously, if you did blindfold test where listeners couldn’t see the antics such as them chasing each other around and blowing in each others’ ears with instruments, I’m guessing plenty of folks wouldn’t find this different than plenty of free jazz duos I’ve heard do way off the main stage in tiny rooms at other festivals. Except maybe for the long pauses there the theater includes using their gear as visual props like (right now) a showerhead to fix a stinky stagemate.
12:38 p.m.: They’re taking what I assume is a break (shows have felt a bit short so far, but I assume people don’t come up here to play for 30 minutes). And while I’m actually very into this – and would probably make my hypothetical kids go to stuff like this all the time the way a never-was jock tries to force his kid to be the star QB – I’m going to head over to the next gig at Kroa that starts in 20 minutes.
12:58 p.m.: Hmmm…turns out that really was the whole kids’ show since the duo was packing up as I left. But I talked to Barrikmo, who’s played seven or eight festivals here with multiple groups dating back to 2004 – which is the same year Lasse Stener Hansen took over as the director. While Hansen is talking about scaling back the festival to how things were then (largely regional musicians at very low costs) out of financial need, Barrikmo said he likes the idea because of the character it would bring back to the festival. “I remember when it would be three of us and we’d play all over town – the hotel, Lompensenteret, Huset – and people would come out, 50 to 100 at a time, and they’d love it,” he said. “I think turning back the clock would be a good thing for the festival.”
1:07 p.m.: So the gig at Kroa is Charlotte Audestad and Freddy Holm, touted by the festival website as “perfect for the traditional jazz lunch at Kroa.” By which it’s referring to traditional jazz, not a traditional lunch. In previous years there’s been a mid-afternoon gig here by Svajazz or others playing similar music. But with the upcoming 5 p.m. gig at Gruvelageret having sold out long before the start of the festival (Hansen rightly credits the venue for that as will be seen) and the bus for it departing at 4 p.m. the lunch gig is more sensible.
1:12 p.m.: It’s worth mentioning previous gigs at Kroa have been free and packed to standing-room only. This year you have to buy tickets for 150 kr., but it’s a sellout in term of the tables being full (although tickets are still available). But that brings me to something I’ve been thinking in the wee morning hours after concerts end for the day (it takes me hours to come down and get the music out my head to the point I can hope to sleep): tickets seem rather expensive for what listeners are getting. Janove, for example, cost 400 kroner for a show that technically lasted under an hour (59 minutes, with no encore). Gurls on Friday night was the least expensive of the main shows at 200 kroner (250 kroner for the sitting section), still a bit steep even by local standards (and remember, while I raved about the group it’s the show that attracted the least interest). I get that it’s gotta be tricky trying to come up with a price/attendance ratio that allows the festival to at least break even and this formula will draw the devoted. And I’m not sure how I see lowering the cost a bit helps much – or how making things very cheap results in the amount of ticket sales or some other kind of revenue that makes sense. All part of the very complex problem that nobody seems to have a solution for yet.
1:24 p.m.: Anyhow, the concert is well underway and in a way it’s a good representation of what the festival was like 15 years ago and may be again. Audestad’s from Trøndelag, which is farmland north of Oslo rather than a “neighbor” in northern Norway, but she’s basically doing a simple, clean acoustic vocal/guitar folk set with Holm on various accompanying instruments, with Audestad telling oft-humorous snippets of tales and song descriptions between the songs (and sometimes in interjections during songs).
1:29 p.m.: Holm just pulled off a very nice mandolin solo for which the crowd was properly appreciative. Just making sure I mention given how my thoughts are still a bit sleepy and wandering.
1:39 p.m.: Creds again to Holm for a pretty killer darkish hoedown violin solo with Audestad doing a nice bit of interactive rhythm chording. Combined with her rather light-pitch, light volume vocals, backed by the many harmonic backings the duo plays on plenty of different instruments, it’s really quite a pleasing and intelligent musical conversation (and quite humorous thanks to the many interjections).
1:43 p.m.: Took a walk around the room to see what everybody’s having for lunch. Reminds me of my high school cafeteria when choices were offered: burgers and fries all around, except for a couple outcasts in a corner eating something relatively healthy. Also, looks like the crowd is almost entirely locals, and mostly of the type I seem to interview a lot (political, business, cultural and other leaders/activists). I can’t say I’m shocked – on a Saturday afternoon with plenty of usable daylight, very mild weather, pretty good snow conditions and a relative lack of tourists on day trips (compared to three weeks from now until May) I’m guessing that’s where a healthy percentage of the new generation is (and they’ll show up for the midnight party, which in some form or another happens weekly as Huset “officially” becomes the only nightclub in town).
But the lunch orders brings to mind the hot dogs and pizza I’ve been seeing the VIP visitors/players getting fed, compared to Norway/Svalbard specialities I’ve seen at some festivals like whale, seal, etc., and something one of the main festival organizers told me last night after everything ended. She said it’s all part of the effort to save as much money as possible and, since presumably the players get sufficient opportunity to try the more exotic stuff on their own if so inclined it’s hard to imagine anyone has much of a problem with it. Although – just to deter on a side thought – when I first arrived a decade ago there wasn’t much effort by anyone to accommodate vegans and other special-request diets/needs. Now everyone does, so presumably festival organizers wouldn’t have let somebody freaked out by frankfurters starve.
2 p.m.: We’re at/near the end of the show and Audestad’s having a ball playing the crowd with an all-over-the place solo vocal/guitar ballad with a lot of sassy narratives and abrupt interruptions all packed contrastingly into that soothing ballad envelope. That was her first encore and she’s still up there telling tales. I got hooked on folk music because of artists playing sets like this in intimate settings. They’re almost always unique and interesting, even among those with wide levels of musical talent, because they’re so personal and spontaneous.
2:08 p.m.: And with her second encore we’re done. The battery on my very old laptop is down to 61 percent after 70 minutes of use. My battery is down to considerably less. Time for some cold air (well, at least as cold as 0C qualifies as) to see if it helps the caffeine get my brain into gear.
4:31 p.m.: At Gruvelageret, which is already full with its sellout crowd 30 minutes before showtime. I made sure to get here right after 4 p.m. since that’s when the bus bringing the crowd here from the center of town departs. Or nearly here, I should say. Passengers are dropped off about a kilometer away at the base of a hill where the road because rather steep and narrow (too much so for a bus, even without the snow and ice on the road). People pick up torches and carry them up here in the near-darkness, leaving them in a cluster across the road from the ageing mining facility that’s been converted in a rustic fine-dining fix-course restaurant. Most people are sitting on long wood benches along long sturdy wood-plank tables, while some along the walls are sitting on tree trunks covered with animal pelts. The music at these gigs always reflects the setting, hence the reason they’re inevitably sold out.
Fun thought: Visitors really wanting to experience “real Svalbard” could have hitched a ride up here right after leaving the last show, gone for a fairly long ski downhill along the road past Huset and toward the cemetery (I’ll guess maybe two kilometers total – and it’s a path that is frequently groomed for just that purpose) and then gone to Huset for the lordagsbiff that’s been a weekly staple for many decades back when it was a way for the miners to unwind with a meat-and-potatoes meal before some weekend merriment at the then community-gathering point. A lot of the folks going there for the plate of a couple of small fillets and all-you-can-eat (mediocre) fries are the ones who’ve been doing it all that time. I actually started a book with the idea of interviewing one table a week per chapter – it got off to a great start and then kinda crashed when a three-generation family with great stories basically covering the whole range of this place wouldn’t let me use the chapter I wrote (some folks not wanting to be named, not because of the content). But I should finish it because it’s yet another part of history/culture here that may be lost soon.
4:59 p.m.: Hey, this one’s starting a minute early. Of course, everyone’s already well settled in with their drinks and such. On stage is Thom Hell, Norwegian folk/rock guy who, to the extent I know anything about him, does ’60s-’70s-style music (originals, not covers). Of a thousand names I might think of, the first that comes to mind with this acoustic vocal/guitar set is Michael Martin Murphy. Soft, higher-pitch voice; finger-picked chords and stories posing as songs. But he’s played a whole bunch of other stuff solo and with groups over the years, and won some Norwegian Grammys a decade ago in what seems to have been his peak. But his bio indicates he’s still getting pretty good reviews here and aboard.
5:15 p.m.: I’m not sure why, but one of the things I find entertaining at gigs like these is the glow of all the smartphones capturing the action, utterly at odds with the historic setting.
5:19 p.m.: Hell’s traded the guitar for a piano – or rather, that it’s-everywhere Nord synth I said deserves a biography in one of these previous rants. He’s actually pretty good, doing a second song right now with a quick rolling-cadence backing and some heavy chording, in contrast to his slow, simple and spare vocalizing (as in oohs and hums as well as words). But since he’s also using a bit of processing/effects it all doesn’t mesh as well for this setting as a simple guitar. Then again, a women a couple seats away just raised her eyebrows at a companion as Hell gets hearty applause as the song ends, so what do I know?
5:27 p.m.: I haven’t written much about his lyrics since the mournful piece he’s doing now (which starts “I can write another love song. But that won’t change the fact she’s gone”) isn’t exactly unique or feel like the sharing of a personal narrative. It doesn’t need to be. Just why I’m not into theme exploring at the moment. (Next song has lines like “somebody’s always trying to bring you down, but you’ll lose that frown in a while…all good things come to those who wait.” Point made.)
5:30 p.m.: BTW, it’s really tempting to use all sorts of quips like “right now the crowd is experiencing Hell (doing whatever). But since Hell is thinking he’s heard them all before, I’m dousing out those supposedly creative flames.
5:49 p.m.: Getting near the presumed end and Hell is getting the audience to do a gentle “la-la-la” singalong in the right places during the chorus (OK, how many of you saw what I did there?). It’s very sweet, actually. Lyrics are a pretty funny contrast about being burnt out, drunk, consumed in a hazy of cigarette smoke, etc. at the end of another hopelessly weary day.
5:58 p.m.: Oh, wow, this is bonkers…Hell is doing a very slow gentle guitar-strumming version of the Confederate-worshipping classic “Dixie.” Then follows it up with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in the same medley. Actually, it’d be a perfect accompaniment to a gruesume and intense Civil War movie battle scene.
6:05 p.m.: And things are over and it’s time to for everyone to make the semi-chilly trek back to the bus, albeit most of them with a decent dose of spirits for warmth. Hence the free bus offered for this and the dance party tonight. For those unaware, you really, really don’t want to get busted for DUI in Norway and it doesn’t take much booze to do so.
7:25 p.m.: At Kulturhuset and, as with Friday compared to Thursday, things have been dialed up a notch compared to last night. Not at all surprising since the second concert is Hellbellies, one of Norway’s most popular rock bands and unquestionably the headline act for this year’s festival. Before them is is group called Eberson, the surnane of a father-daughter duo that lead it. Listening to their sound check now and they’re basically an ambient rock fivesome that at least promise to be solid. Big difference I noticed coming in is the tables in the VIP food/drinks are are set and they’re getting fed considerably better than the previous two nights. I’m just guessing that Hellbellies and hot dogs don’t mix.
Speaking of, talking to Hell after his gig (he was talking to some nearby folks about the varying quality of journalists who actually listen to his music or don’t, so of course) and he mentioned that he definitely came here at a cut rate. But it’s not just a Svalbard thing, although that was certainly motivation to come – he’s getting more and much such requests by events who are feeling financial pressure. One of the reasons he’s doing a lot of solo shows these days is because it’s simpler and cheaper for the hosts. He said he doesn’t like to haggle and took what the Polarjazz folks said they could offer – but noted a bit wryly “I could play a hundred shows for what they’re paying Hellbellies.” (Yes, the potential comparative netherworld references running rampant in my mind.)
7:53 p.m.: Yikes. Seven minutes to the scheduled start and things are scary empty everywhere. I actually checked to make sure the schedule didn’t have the first show starting later. Just FYI: tickets for Eberson 300/350 kr. standing/sitting, 450 kr. for Hellbellies (standing only) and 100 for the midnight dance party with Cirkus Dos Mosquitos at Huset (which includes free bus rides). Pass for the whole night is 700 kroner. The price for Hellbellies is top tier for a single concert, but clearly in line with the band’s caliber and should easily be a strong seller (although one might hope it’s longer than the default hour-long shows during the festival and definitely expect more if they were booked for a regular non-festival concert). But the price for Eberson seems rather dear and the full-evening pass doesn’t offer nearly enough savings to tempt people interested in the main event but willing to make a long night of it to hear something new.
8:15 p.m.: Scanning news of the world while waiting for signs of life on stage. Among the big news in my “never going back there” U.S.: Phil the groundhog didn’t see his shadow so it’s going to be an early spring and about a million Super Bowl articles including one noting you can bet on whether Gladys Knight will kneel during the national anthem (2-1 odds against). Meanwhile the news when I got home after midnight two nights ago was a tourist spotting a polar bear on a hill near town (no big deal – the governor’s helicopter apparently chased it away). Last night it was the governor calling for feedback to close a very popular snowmobiling area to traffic because lots of people were behaving like morons and intruding on bears while mating and trying to raise cubs. Yeah, there’s a reason I live here (and that’s before we get within a caravan’s length of the insanity passing for politics and other serious news over there). BTW, I hope it’s obvious why you haven’t read those stories here yet. Check back sometime Monday afternoon after the festival’s over and I’ve sort of recovered from the sleep-deprived crash.
8:22 p.m.: Underway with the opening act and – yup – slow and densely textured ambient rock. But not nearly as thick and hazy (including visually in terms of smoke) as Ola Kvernberg’s Steamdome on Thursday night, so it’s possibly to discern and appreciate vocals and individual instrumentals. In particular on the opener is Daddy Eberson (Jon) doing an echo-heavy note-at-a-time electric guitar narrative moderately over the building backdrop. Basically nice and smooth without jarring or discordant leaps and bounds. And Daughter Eberson (Marte) is the lead singer and playing a (real) piano, for those keeping score at home.
8:34 p.m.: Marte’s doing a piano solo on the second number and is a lot like her dad in that it’s definitely a cozy and easy-to-follow narrative whose lows and highs stay in a narrow range. Fitting for these kinds of arrangements and certainly makes it easier for them to chat together assuming things get to that at some point.
8:40 p.m: The crowd size isn’t terrible, but it’s definitely not good – especially for Saturday night. There’s plenty of empty space at the back and it’s roughly in line with the “secondary” shows from other night this year. It does appear the two rows of seats are filled, so at least that seems to have worked out as hoped (unless organizers were hoping to sell a lot more).
8:47 p.m.: Big breaking news revelation: Jon’s doing the band intros and offered a special thank you to former longtime local Finn Sletten who’s filling on drums in place of the band’s Axel Skalstad. Finn’s definitely one of Svalbard’s notoriously storied folks both in music and in real life. He grew up in Ny-Ålesund from the time he was an infant and departed with his family after a decade because of a 1962 accident that killed 21 coal miners. He seems to show up in some form at every festival and plenty of other times when there’s music during the year. And he’s got enough jazz cred that he’s got a Wikipedia page (in English and Norwegian, no less).
9:15 p.m.: A relatively mellow and not-too-dense adult popish ballad is being followed up with a relatively explorative instrumental number with Jon doing varying warbling rhythms and riffs with heavy effects while his daughter dances around the edges on keys before stepping in assertively with what’s essentially a repeating riff with minor variations throughout. Turns out it was a very long intro to another ballad, just one a lot of harmonically and texturally complex.
9:25 p.m.: Like the long opening, the end of the song made a long radical transformation into a wild synth solo with Finn collaborating in kind on drums. Damn, that was pretty impressive – and kinda the jolt I’m needing right now because I’m definitely feeling the burnout from too many hours of this.
9:27 p.m.: And that’s the “finale” and we’re into the encore with a return to the more soothing stuff we’ve mostly been hearing. Something with the cheer and playful tone of a child in a field. Then a transition to some darker timbres of adolescence. And back to playful (maybe first love or the relief that comes while moving back in with your parents after school to save on rent until you can find a job).
9:32 p.m.: As my preview suggested, nice and solid show. Of course, there’s no way in the world Hellbellies is going to start close to on time. Which is why the official time of midnight for Cirkus Dos Mosquitos is listed as approximate.
10:07 p.m.: This impressive…starting “early” by this year’s standards after the late finish before. Floor area is packed solid and the VIP balcony, while not filled, has far more people than anything earlier. So at least this is (not surprisingly) fulfilling sales/attendance expectations.
10:10 p.m.: In terms of Hellbillies and their performance, I’ll probably just be listening without too many rants since 1) the gig is critic-proof in that I’m not qualified to be one and the crowd’s going to love it unless the band decides to have a moment and starts playing classics like “Stand By Your Man.” So it’s all about the tidbits, trivia, people, memories and future pontifications.
10:15 p.m.: I don’t know if there much of a media presence here beyond the local press, but I did run into two freelance journalists from Los Angeles doing a freelance piece for Scandinavian Airlines. But here’s the thing: they arrived yesterday and are departing tomorrow afternoon. That means they’re getting only a nibble of the overall meal, to say nothing of Svalbard itself (they did do a snowmobile trip today). So I’m guessing the article will be like the endless barrage of short and promo-worthy travelogues that devote most of their short space to the usual list of cool things about Svalbard (polar bears, Northern Lights, etc.), where to stay/eat/shop (assuming this is a “hosted” trip expect the host to be first and foremost) and a few dashes of festival happenings for illustrative color. Then again, I’m guessing the editors of airline magazines and nearly all newspaper travel sections don’t want more. But it’s hard to imagine it’s going to lure folks here for the festival.
While I’m sure there’s budget/logistics stuff on both ends I’m not aware of, it seems if people are coming all the way from L.A. it’s gotta be worth investing in the couple of extra days that would make the experience far more immersive. Extending their visit by one day in this case would mean they could go to the Mine 3 concert early Sunday evening that I’d consider the true headliner. A trio of acclaimed visiting artists doing a Svalbard-theme suite composed just for the festival, with the local miners choir backing them in the rusty metallic ambiance/acoustics of the mine that shut down two decades ago. Combine that with a very scenic bus ride up and back (including past the seed vault being reconstructed, given the media pictures and first-hand descriptors to go with mandatory mention of its existence). Thats a far more interesting way to flush out an article and get people interested in what’s going on now.
10:36 p.m.: Hellbillies did a concert to headline things here during Solfestuka back in March of 2011 and I’m scanning the archives to see what, if anything, I had to say beyond it was sold out weeks in advance. Not shockingly, it turns out most of my musical musings were for something totally different and totally bizarre: an outdoor “Scootersymfonien” (“snowmobile symphony”) composed by a long-ago local arts teacher that, as I put it, featured “an overture of synthesized strings transformed into a pops ensemble, joined subsequently by a chorus of voices, the ringing of a line of young percussionists alongside a pipeline and – at the prompting of a signal pistol – the roar of a snowmobile quintet.” It took place in the then-empty field that’s not occupied by Svalbard Hotell – The Vault, a new building almost finish and soon to be a number of others since the whole area is being build out as part of the mad rush to relocate residences from near avalanche-prone mountains to safer terrain.
10:47 p.m.: Interestingly, the Hellbillies concert back then came just before a midnight dance party, just like now. Except that concert was at Huset, saving everyone the bus trip there and back again. One of the themes in an article about Solfestuka I wrote that year was how old-timers were quite passionate about keeping traditional events (all of them, really) at the community center built back in the 1950s which (as mentioned up higher) was where folks gathered for everything from parties to funerals. Some of them were profanely angry when Kulturhuset opened and became the main arts center in 2010 (you’re looking for the article about the passing of loveable community curmudgeon Jon Sandmo, not my article about that year’s Polarjazz that was fit for a queen – but read that as well).
10:58 p.m.: Worth noting that while I’m not writing much about the concert, it’s actually pretty enjoyable even though their brand of rock isn’t my thing. Completely accessible across the board in terms of music, lyrics, lighting and volume – all of which are intense but not painfully overwhelming. Crowd’s listening appreciatively, because this isn’t really stuff to get your freak or grove on. They all been immersed in this stuff to have the context to appreciate the band the way I hear locals performers from a decade ago far different now. Hence my lack of desire to spread my ignorant opinions in words.
11:17 p.m.: Somebody who’s live on Facebook at the concert right now. (I’m really ignorant, but I’m assuming such videos are also watchable later).
11:28 p.m.: Doing what I assume is the finale and they’ve actually got my attention on what’s clearly a greatest hit the audience is singing along to. Sure, it’s catchy, but the guys holding guitars went wild with some long solos toward the end along with some fun stageplay. Call it the adult version of the playfulness the young ‘uns got during the gig that started this reeeeaaally long day off.
11:30 p.m.: Also, somebody in the VIP area just knocked a wine glass off the table where the soundboard gear is and broke it for the second night in a row. Much of the gear is downstairs, but I gotta think somebody ought to be keeping an eye out so people don’t have the cluster of wine glasses and beer cans that are there now. (Yes, I have a glass of water…in a very secure place where somebody would have to grope around in a confined and covered dark space to come across it. Lesson I’ve learned from having people spill their booze on my stuff over the many years of covering concerts).
11:35 p.m.: We’re now into the second encore, so the crowd definitely did get its money both in terms of talent and time.
11:49 p.m.: Three quite long encores and now we’re done. They really turned things on the last half-hour or so and I gotta say, while I wouldn’t buy my own ticket because I can’t afford it, I’d definitely see these guys again if invited. There’s legendary bands playing on rep decades later and those still playing to play. This was the latter. And, yes, that makes the “high” ticket price a huge bargain compared to earlier concerts that were half as long. Somewhere all that has to figure into the equation when festival organizers sit down and figure out where to go from here.
11:53 p.m.: And in one final bit of personal tradition, I’m calling today’s liveblog a wrap. I’ve never made it past the “show up and take a few pictures” stage of the midnight show during Polarjazz, and given how this concert ended I have no desire to end this feeling like I’m shortchanging myself and readers of whatever I’m ranting about.
So stay tuned for the final day, where I’ll be liveblogging (but not live, obviously) at what is guaranteed to be the coolest concert of the festival in at least one way.