ALT REVIEW: a-ha, Oxbow Stage, Napa

As I fully expected, DJ Bear published a review for the a-ha show last Friday. That motivated me to collect my thoughts about the concert, since my wife and I attended it as well. Having said that, I chose not to read his review first as I didn’t want to influence my impressions of what was, in retrospect, a fantastic evening. Having said that, not all was right in Denmark . . . or rather Norway. 😉

The setting was fantastic, it’s Napa for Pete’s sake who’s gonna complain. A warm afternoon gave way to a cool evening breeze that blew across the stage. You’d think the stage hands would have given up on the fog machines that continued to belch mist onto the stage which drifted off as quickly as it was produced, rendering the effect useless. Did it take away from the show? Nope.

I bought seated tickets with the understanding that there was no opening act (no special guest announced) and was rather surprised to have to sit through a DJ . . . we’ll call him DJ Clueless. Before you bring out your cape for this guy, read on and you may feel the same. I’ve been to literally hundreds of shows and when there’s no opener . . . I mean, there might be a comedian or radio personality who will come out to “warm the audience up” before the main attraction, but no opening band generally means no music.

DJ Clueless must be well connected and to that I say, good on you sir. Congratulations for knowing the right people to get you up there. It was obvious, however, by the number of selfies you took on our time that you were surprised you were there too! DJC and an accompanying bongo player (who has more talent in any one of his fingers than the DJ) were up there for an hour . . . It seemed longer!

On a related tangent, is it me or does a DJ gig seem unimpressive? As a DJ you literally go up onto a stage with a dope pair of headphones and PRERECORDED SHIT, and you turn a few knobs and bob your head up and down and shuffle your feet. Big effen deal. You want to impress me? PLAY an instrument . . . SING something . . . actually DO SOMETHING! But I digress.

So he’s up there for 1 hour and got exactly 1 huge cheer from the crowd at about the 30-minute mark when he played Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax”. Instead of realizing “Hey, I played an 80s New Wave hit during an 80s throwback tour and got massive applause” maybe I should play more shit like that! No, instead he went back to playing other stuff and nobody vibed. WTF? Seriously? Apparently this guy’s talent was “not reading the room”. And I lied, actually he did get another massive cheer . . . and that was when he got the hell off the stage.

After they cleared the stage and the lights dimmed, and we were treated to their show opener, a magnificent and moody, bass-driven so-not-a-hit-in-the-states “Sycamore Leaves” off their 4th album. This was the first of the rest of their releases never to grace the Billboard 200. Pity. That album is positively brilliant. It was at that moment where I took stock of my good fortune . . . I realized that I was standing with nothing more than a few thousand people who’d come together out of our love of a band that was never a big deal here in the states but should have been.

At that moment I felt . . . superior. That probably sounds obnoxious, but it’s how I felt. How sad for the rest of the plebes who didn’t have the forethought to procure tickets to this moment in time. This was an anniversary tour of their brilliant Hunting High and Low album where they played all of the tracks from their debut LP. For the most part, they played these tracks in order, but were preceded and succeeded by (international) hits and fan favorites. And, although the album opens with Take On Me, it was the obvious encore so they slid into songs from Scoundrel Days and East of the Sun, West of the Moon as well as a new track from the yet-to-be released True North before they headed into the full tracks 2-10 off Hunting High and Low. And they weren’t as synth sounding as I’d anticipated. They sounded . . . chunky. They actually rocked.

These interpretations were close enough for the casual fan to “know that song” but different enough for the discerning fan who knew every nuanced difference. Now, not everything was perfect. My favorite song, Living a Boy’s Adventure Tale, had a horrendous backing track that was clearly meant to add some dimension and layers of harmony to Morten’s narrowing range. It didn’t work. So let me say, he sounded good. No, better than good, but 35 years later, he doesn’t have the range he used to, and I didn’t care. His voice was pure and clear but he had to reach for notes that were not in his sweet spot anymore. Mags and Pal played magnificently and the backing musicians did them proud. Mags was comfortably chatty, engaging the crowd in between songs. They played/closed their set with The Living Daylights which was dope. So effen good. And when they thanked us and left the stage, we just waited. WE ALL KNOW THE SCHTICK.

We clapped, and cheered and they came back on for the icing on the cake . . . “Take On Me”. And damn, if it wasn’t as spectacular and as glorious as you would hope it would be. He hit and held every freakin’ note he needed to (yes, I ended that sentence in a preposition). It was the perfect ending to a wonderful evening despite the misstep with DJ What’s-his-bucket.

Next show, Crowded House in SF with Crystal . . . stay tuned. Until then . . .

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