The Ole Blues Bergen Music Festival
featuring Grant Lee Phillips, Hawksley Workman, The Handsome Family, Ben Christophers, Kristoffer Aastrøm, and others
Bergen, Norway • April 30 – May 4, 2002
It’s only been a year since I gave up cigarettes, and I do miss smoking from time to time. And definitely during the Grant Lee Phillips concert that opens the tenth annual Ole Blues Bergen Music Festival. As Grant Lee enters the stage — grinning like mad, all fired up for the show — I catch myself doing that arrogant music critic/seasoned concert-goer thing where you fold your arms and barely bother about shifting your stance to gulp down your beer once in a while. It’s a nice pose; it’s quite comfortable when you are standing up for a couple of hours without leaning against a wall or a table or whatever. However, as Grant Lee pulls one glorious song after the other out from his sleeve or from his heart or his gut or wherever, I can’t do it anymore, I have to let my arms fall, I have to raise them in the air, applaud like mad. This is too good to try and block out, it’s too good to resist being carried away with. And while he plays all the classic Buffalo stuff, the great realization of the evening is that the new songs are at least as brilliant as the older ones.
The annoying thing about festivals is that you’re bound to miss out on a lot of stuff, basically because you really can’t be in two places at the same time. That’s OK with me, though, I mainly do the alt.country-route and I get to see the bands I really care about seeing. And while the fine people who organized this whole five-days long thing have put together a nice program this year — or how about Lambchop, John Hammond, Trilok Gurtu Trio, Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave), Woven Hand, Marianne Faithful, etc. — the one I really regret about having to drop is Hammel On Trial. Apparently, it is an amazing show, but damn it, I’ll catch him next year.
The gig I’ve been waiting for, though, is Hawksley Workman playing at Garage, and there is no way I’m going to miss that one. The Gotan Project and local heroes Røyksopp, playing a block away, attract the big crowds, but the hundred or so people that have gathered to see Hawksley don’t seem to be too concerned about that. As for me, I catch a glimpse of Hawksley pre-show as he wanders through the pub, and I go all “woo-hoo!,” so I’m obviously a fan. Now, I’ve heard about his stage antics and that he’s going all theatrical on our asses and stuff like that, but I couldn’t possibly have prepared for the hilarious humor and the poignant beauty that defines the Hawksley Workman live experience. The songs, brilliant as they are on album, gain a whole new life in a live setting. Hawksley refuses to stick too close to the original arrangements, and instead he plays around and in-between them, like some Dylan gone raving mad. And whether he takes his clothes off on stage, produces scratching sounds from the zipper on his pants (quite impressive that one, really) or simply tells the story of getting a cold in France, the audience is left gaping, following his every unpredictable step. At times I laugh out loud, at other times I almost cry, and whatever it is, this is magic, really. The best concert of the year, easily. Catch him if you can.
The husband-and-wife duo that is The Handsome Family must be one of the nicest couples ever. They play a two-sets concert, and when it’s time for their break, rather than go backstage for whatever it is that people do backstage, they stroll around among the audience, talk to people, just hang out. Nice. Playing for a late-night Friday crowd, the experienced Handsome Family come out accentuating the more thunderous country of their repertoire, saving the quiet, hushed folk for the later part of the concert, when they’ve won everyone in the audience over. On record, The Handsome Family just keeps on getting better, and their latest offering, Twilight, is a mesmerizing journey through gloomy Americana. The fact that they manage to communicate intimately with a live audience without ever compromising the epic complexity and the eerie feel of their music is a testament to the truly remarkable power of the band, the music and the performance.
Ben Christophers enters the stage accompanied only by that floating voice of his, an acoustic guitar and his boom-box of hard-hitting techno. It’s a weird show, varying between almost too-hushed deliveries and over-the-top electro-folk, always with that sweet, sliding voice on top. Like Jeff Buckley meeting Scott 4, perhaps, or Nick Drake teaming up with The Orb. It’s all a bit too perfect, though, a bit too considered, and while Christophers’ performance is ultimately nothing short of impeccable, there is very little room for spontaneity and real presence. The show’s last encore is a captivating, stunning version of “My Beautiful Demon,” but Christophers still has some way to go until his concerts match the quality of his albums.
Proving that it’s OK to be both cowboy and punk, Kristoffer Aastrøm keeps up a career as vocalist in Swedish punk band Fireside as well as a career fronting Nordic country outfit Kristoffer Aastrøm and The Hidden Trucks. There you go. I’ve seen Fireside before, but up until now I haven’t had the good fortune to see Kristoffer’s more-or-less “solo” concerts. Judging by this evening, however, it has definitely been worth the wait. Kristoffer is a charismatic, engaging front-person, all set on getting his music across to the audience. And with the amazing band heÃs gathered, this proves to be an easy feat. While his lyrics portray a desperate, worn-out man, the music is far more upbeat — which is always an admirable combination, as there is after all such a thing as too much misery. So with Kristoffer pouring out his sadness and dancing to his own misery, a smile begins to form on his face, and it’s a good thing, it’s a release — and so, after all, it’s a lovely Saturday night and it’s a great concert, and really, we’re all having a very, very good time.