POPOFF! CONCERT REVIEW: a-ha & the Oxbow River Stage Napa July, 29th: Only Highs No Lows

POPOFF! CONCERT REVIEW: a-ha & the Oxbow River Stage Napa July, 29th: Only Highs No Lows

For those of you who hate blogs with preamble about grandmothers or the history of hush puppies and wish the author would just get straight to the waffle recipe…

The a-ha show at the Oxbow Stage in Napa was great. The audience was into it (many full of beer and wine to help them along). They played all the songs I had hoped to hear (definitely the one or two you probably know from MTV). The venue is fun and smallish with great sound and no pretentious vibes or excessive policing of bags and seats. Come for the day and hang out in Napa, get some good eats, and then see the show. Bring layers if you don’t dance because once the sun starts to set it gets cold and windy on the lawn. Who doesn’t like food, live music, and a sunset all together? Fool’s that’s who.

Alright, now I can get to the whole story.

Part 1: The Show

a-ha is one of my favorite groups so I can tell you they are not a one hit wonder by ANY stretch. I know all their club hits. I’ve seen all the videos. And can attest the album version of their James Bond theme is better than the movie version. But I can’t name all the members I don’t even know every song on the later albums, let alone b-sides or whatever else “real” fans are up to. Maybe Stan culture was always there but the internet has certainly created an echo chamber with a mega phone for every act on the planet and segments of fans will check your qualifications regularly. And some of those people were present at the outside show in Napa on Friday losing their voices and screaming at men they used to dream over while staring at the poster on the wall. But most the audience I am guessing knew that one song, if they knew even that. It was live music on a sunny Friday in wine country so yeah spirits (pun intended) were high.

That said, their debut “Hunting High and Low” is my favorite album of all time. It is clearly a case of “right place, right time” for me. And less about being blown away by greatness. I know every 12 inch of it. And not long into the show when they played, “Train of Thought” (track 2) followed by “Hunting High and Low” (Track 3) I knew they were performing the entire album albeit SLIGHTLY out of order. Predictably the opening track on the album and their biggest hit in the US HAD to be the encore (you know the song AND the video). I wish they would’ve bucked the predictability but I can’t complain I heard all the songs I’d hoped to hear from across their catalog (including deep cuts) that night.

But hearing that album I’d listened to possibly more than any other in my youth and STILL the one record I can never leave to shuffle on my computer or CD player, was interesting. My favorite track on the album, “Living A Boys Adventure Tale” (Track 5) came a point in the night when the sun was almost done setting. I knew SOME moment like that would happen. I didn’t know what song, but THAT song… It was a bit surreal.

The album is tied to so many parts of my youth from driving with family through foggy SF, or certain video games I would play on the C64. To say nothing of how I was unknowingly using it to escape trauma and abuse when I went to bed at night. But it was only in the last seven years or so that the album registered as an 80’s album. It always felt detached from all the other 80’s music I listened too because of how bundled up I had it with my youth, meaning it never sound 80s to me. It sounded like some mythic and magical piece of work that had secrets only I understood or maybe didn’t understand at all. Not like some average 80’s pop album. And in the moment of the sunset I noticed I didn’t feel the attachment to my youth like I used to. Maybe it’s because these were live versions. I still LOVED the songs but my enjoyment was not dictated by the personal history or nostalgia it was dictated by the moment of being present with others in a venue that was basically a public park in Napa as the sun was setting. And I knew every song that was coming because I Knew the album and when they finished the album (expect for that one song) it felt like closure. And I am not even sure WHAT the closure was about other than seeing one of my favorite acts, who thankfully, still managed to carry it well despite the age. It was not the sad or cringe-worthy experience that some nostalgia tours can be. “Blue Sky” (Track 4) turned out to be my favorite performance of the night.

You could tell much of the audience was there simply because there was an “event” going on. It was something to do in Napa on Friday while you drink wine on a sunny evening. So people were in a good mood and they danced even to songs they likely didn’t know (wine and beers helps with that). There were young people present too from little kids running around to teenagers standing still because they were too cool for all that was going on.

When the encore came it was THAT song. And many of us knew it would be. But for MANY others when those opening synth lines came in you the heard a uniform and very loud cheer that sounded as if the crowd wanted to scream, “OMG! It’s THAT band? What?! I LOVE this song!”

Some of the younger people were so taken by my spinning and general dance energy that they followed me like I was some of of synth-pop pied piper. It was great to see the casual mixing of generations. I seem to see it so rarely these days. So I would say in this case the setting set the tone more so than the band. I saw a-ha but I saw that what I love about live music is still possible and hasn’t totally been sucked of all the spontaneity and life so many live shows seem to do to me with logos on every inch and the formulaic and predictable beats.

a-ha’s last show will be at the Hollywood Bowl with the LA Symphony this week… I’m sure it will be great but somehow I don’t think that arena will carry the same laid back community spirit and the same laid back price. You also won’t get to see a true rock ‘n’ roll tradition live on like I did. A friend brought their 11 year old son, passing the torch as you do, and when the show was over the son swiped the setlist of one Morten Hacket off the stage. Hi-fives all around.


Note: I checked the set lists for their other dates and was stunned (and pleased to see) we at the Oxbow we’re the only date that got Hunting High and Low in track order, no intermission bookend by other hits. Also we got 19 songs as opposed to 18. They did mix song up choices so it wasn’t the same show every date.

Sycamore Leaves
The Swing of Things
Crying in the Rain
You Have What It Takes
Train of Thought
Hunting High and Low
The Blue Sky*
Living a Boy’s Adventure Tale*
The Sun Always Shines on T.V.
And You Tell Me
Love Is Reason
I Dream Myself Alive
Here I Stand and Face the Rain
The Blood That Moves the Body*
We’re Looking for the Whales*
Cry Wolf
I’ve Been Losing You
The Living Daylights
Take On Me

Part 2: The Venue

As I said up top if you are coming to a show at the Oxbow Stage in Napa make a day of it. There are many shops and good eats (and better drinks) RIGHT by the venue. And parking is ample anywhere on any street a couple blocks from the venue. I am going to let you in on some secrets here. A lot of which, my friends would be saying “Shhhhh!” we don’t our little discovery to ourselves! I get it but, also I know how the inevitable future unfolds and now is the time for to have these experiences.

The venue itself, is literally just a stage set-up in a public park. It’s seats around 5,000 but forget the seats. When I first heard about this show I looked up pictures of the venue to get and idea of whether I should buy seats closer to stage or not (because I am kind of broke). Let me EMPHASIZE unless you are into V.I.P. perks or for some health reason need an uncomfortable white folding chair, go for the lawn seat prices. Trust me. You will be close enough and even if you aren’t people just walked up to the stage anyway. Also everybody ended up standing so why bother with the seats, they only get in the way of dancing. On second thought, regarding health issues, buy GA lawn seats and bring your own more comfortable chair. And make sure your friends get lawn seats. And make sure you go early enough to snag a table on the lawn to set up your “spread”, turn the table to face the stage and BOOM, go time! Also KNOW the act you are going to see and plan accordingly, this can save you time and money. I am very good at this.

I knew a-ha was not going to be a huge draw, especially in Napa. And checking the website there were plenty of seats a week before and sure enough I easily got general admission the day of the show. Yes, I bought tickets to see my favorite act, the DAY OF at the venue an hour drive from my house. Some of you may be thinking this is lunacy, especially for my favorite act that has only ever has toured the US twice before. But like I said I KNOW my acts and I know my venues. Some of you will have to fight your FOMO hard but I will tell you it saved me $30 in ticketdisaster fees. Making my ticket only $45 leaving me leftover cash to throw at the local foods spots and shops.

Right now I am looking at tickets for Robert Plant and Alison Krauss at the end of August in the same venue and there are still plenty of seats. If these two where playing at Freight And Salvage down the street from me… this show would’ve sold out months ago. So again, know the venue and the neighborhood around it. Rural community venues often don’t sell out but they also often don’t get big names like Plant and Krauss or Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staple (coming September). This leads to the locals being PUMPED for any entertainment. My theory is somebody has a lot of money to pay acts to play here and chose to invest more money for better acts and less money into the day to day operations and staff and “venue” itself.

My point being… this is a venue people are SLEEPING on. Napa is NOT that far away from me. No farther for me than going to San Jose where Elton is playing in fall. And maybe the venue is fairly new because the box office was basically one of those giant portable metal containers placed under the overpass in front of the park. The security was there but VERY laid back. Really it is so chill, my friend came in with snacks and water (in our own personal bottles). And like I said above it is literally just a public park. If you need some Fox Theater or Chase Center perks, you’re thinking about this all wrong. You want to catch a show here because you can get close fairly cheap and hear the music really well from just about any location. You can get good local food in the area and avoid a lot large venue hassle AND if my experience is any indication hang with a looser crowd that will smile at you (or in my case kiss you on the cheek) because their having such a laid back energetic Napa time.

I guarantee you in about two years all the special low key, DIY, and chill factors that made it so cool will be replaced by traffic cones, paid parking, long lines, more security. Because it will attract the kind of annoying crowds that show up just because it’s now the hip expensive thing to do, sitting cross armed in the front row. Also, ticket prices will surely skyrocket and price out the locals who made the whole night feel like a mini-vacation by being far less pretentious.

Side note: The front row, well all rows are well below the stage. So again, get lawns seats you won’t be craning your neck in the back row.

Oh, I forgot. There were some initial sound fluctuations in the fist couple songs but the sound engineers adjusted and tweaked and it didn’t take long for the sound to be pretty good for an outside venue with wind flying down the valley. I think if you got a full rock band up there… get ready. I’m also thinking this might be THE SPOT for my idea of the Soundwaves End Of Summer Fest, featuring all local bay area acts. In fact, outside the distance of it all it is the PERFECT audience venue for that.

Many of the people I talked to during the day joked about going to the show from their house. That is how close everything is, but nobody complained. They all loved having the venue there. And let me just shout out to the service and hospitality. There was no Bay Area, “I’m not paid enough to care attitude”. I got southern hospitality energy the entire day. These people LOVE where they live. I guess when you are around all that wine and beer all the time you mellow out.

Don’t wait to see a show here, even if it isn’t an act you know well, just GO! Plan to leave early and beat traffic. I say leave at noon bring your favorite music for the drive. Park on a side street to ignore the parking lot hassle. Get a leisurely late lunch and at NON chain restaurant joint across the bridge by the water. But skip dessert. You’ll find a great little after meal treat when you walk the shops (most of which are local and not selling the usual mall junk). Then about an hour before show time go the gate with your bag of snacks and water barely hidden under a blanket and anticipate the sunset going down to the music. And when the music starts… I’ll quote Shakespeare, “Eat, drink, and be merry”. And when the show is over don’t rush to your car. Let the moment settle then go park your crew at a local drink spot and stay until close (most close at 11 and many allow kids). Or if you really want to splurge make a three day weekend out it, you learn how to slow down again, stop and smell the grape vines.

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