Benny Andersson Band gig review

The Telegraph issues a fairer and more realistic review of Benny Andersson’s Band on Hampstead Heath than some I’ve seen – which were obviously expecting every song to be an ABBA song and wouldn’t have been happy unless Agnetha and Frida had joined Benny’s band.

As one quarter of ABBA and one-half of the writing team responsible for the songs the Great British Public is most likely to launch into after a drink or five, Benny Andersson could easily have played – well, maybe not the O2 Centre for 50 nights but certainly something larger than the Hampstead Heath bandstand. Yet it was this modest if scenic open-air venue that Andersson chose for his first UK show in more than 20 years on Saturday.

In fairness, the venue was a bit larger than the Edwardian bandstand. Andersson, plus band composed of “14 middle-aged men” along with vocalists Helen Sjoholm and Tommy Korberg, actually performed on a real, if temporary, stage adjacent to the bandstand, in front of fewer than 10,000 people sitting on the grass. How art the mighty fallen, one might be tempted to think. But as the climax of a Swedish cultural festival held on the Heath, the free appearance was more of a patriotic gesture than commercial enterprise (thus Andersson was introduced by that showbiz legend, the Swedish Ambassador).

It’s just as well the audience was filled with loads of Swedes getting in touch with their culture. Andersson is Sweden’s answer to Paul McCartney (crossed with Andrew Lloyd Webber), with a similar innate musicianship and genius for catchy pop hooks and plangent melodies. And much as Paul McCartney was reluctant to play Beatles songs when he first started touring in support of his solo albums, Andersson wanted to focus on the present. The playlist was drawn largely from “Story of A Heart”, a compilation of tracks (now translated) from three Swedish releases by Andersson’s current project, the Benny Andersson Band, and their first English-language album. However, if Abba fans were disappointed, the Swedes were delighted. After all, one of the Band’s singles, a Fats Domino-influenced number performed in English as You Are My Man, has been in the Swedish charts for five years.

No one can say the Band (or BAO, for Benny Andersson Orkestra, as it is known in Sweden) isn’t eclectic. Andersson has said he formed the band to explore his interest in Swedish folk music and so fiddles, piccolos, and even a tuba feature prominently. Andersson-composed but traditional-sounding songs such as Gladan are mixed with genuine traditional Swedish folk songs, which, if not for the prominent accordion (played by Andersson), could easily be mistaken for Scottish reels. Adding an electric bass and thumping rock drum to traditional styles, Andersson appears to be trying to do for Swedish folk what Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span did for British folk music, and, like those bands, is finding a constituency. When the band strikes up a schottish (a Scottish round dance), an amazing number of people – Swedes, I’m sure, as opposed to Scots – start dancing as if they know what they’re doing.

Still on the folk tip, waltzes like Monas Vals reveal Andersson to be the unlikely heir to Cajun master accordionist Clifton Chenier while tuba-heavy oom-pah numbers like Cirkus Finemag and a couple of polkas seem made for waving glasses of loganberry wine along to. At any rate, the Swedes go mad for them and sing along. Even American folk tradition gets a look in with the Country-and-Western-ish Det Ar Vi Anda, a sort of Tammy Wynette song with added tuba.

But it wasn’t all tubas and fiddles. The woodwinds and brass sections came out for another Andersson-composed number, Our Last Dance, which would be perfectly at home on the Home Service, being transmitted from a hotel ballroom over the wireless. Throw in a couple of pop classics like Moon River and Cole Porter’s True Love (the latter enriched by a gorgeous pedal steel solo), a couple of classical numbers given oompah arrangements (not everyone could add a tuba to Bach and make it work), and a Chuck Berry cover, and it’s no wonder this wide-ranging set lasted more than two hours. This was perhaps overlong, and by the end the vocalists were noticeably flagging, but no one could complain they’d been shortchanged.

Whatever the genre, all the songs shared great arrangements polished to a high professional gleam and all were eminently danceable. Although made up of Sweden’s top musicians, the BAO seemed like a group of amateurs, but only in the sense of doing it for love. No glitz, no glamour (Andersson himself looks like a tenured psychology professor these days) but lots of relaxed good humor, with Andersson and vocalist Korberg demonstrating a nifty grasp of wry humor – in English.

In an interview with the Telegraph, Andersson said he wanted to recreate the feeling of a Swedish Volkpark, midsummer shows with a stage and a dance floor where “people would bring their own booze and dance.” The British cooperated on the booze front but, as usual, were more comfortable bouncing rather than dancing. It wasn’t edgy, it wasn’t decadent, and it wasn’t even really rock and roll, but as the golden evening sun streamed over the Heath’s green acres and a general air of laidback civilized enjoyment prevailed, it was a great promo for Volksparks.

And yes, it turned out there was even something for Abba fans. New songs like Fait Accompli and the single Story of A Heart had the familiar combination of piercingly clear vocals, tight harmonies and lyrics about heartbreak set to a bouncy pop melody, while blissful smiles and hand-waving greeted old standards Hasta Manana and I Do, I Do, I Do. Eventually, Andersson may come to feel that performing his famous back catalogue doesn’t overshadow so much as complement his current oeuvre. As he left the stage, a group of fans down in front spontaneously burst into Thank You For The Music. As McCartney once almost sang, money can’t buy you that kind of love.

12 thoughts on “Benny Andersson Band gig review”

  1. Premature apology for probable ramblings:

    Maybe it is just me, but I think all this about expecting ABBA from Benny is weird. But I have very strong suspicions that it simply is because I live in Sweden and have had time for the change (transition from pop into muscials and folk) to happen and sink in.

    When I hear the name "Benny Andersson" the things that pop into my head is Kristina från Duvemåla first and then ABBA, and maybe even Helen Sjöholm before ABBA.

    Maybe it’s the nature of the nordic countries and their Jante Law that makes us unable to appreciate how big a band like ABBA was and is around the world, but at least from the impressions I have had I do not think we look up to Benny Andersson the same way as people from other countries do, he’s not the same kind of legendary performer. Helen might in some cases even be cheered for more than Benny is, over here.

    ABBA were extravagant and colorful, and that is something that the Jante Law tells us not to promote and be proud of: we are supposed to be modest.

    That is why I think that today, Benny is more instictively known for his work with Helen Sjöholm ("Kristina", "You Are My Man", etc), although when really asked what he is known for it would of course be ABBA.

    His recent work is something that we swedish people can relate to more and actually be proud of and openly like, since it is modest folk.

    And here lies my problem… when I read these reviews that say that they expected some more ABBA, I am slightly confuzzled from the thought that goes through my head: "What are they talking about? What does Benny – live – have to do with ABBA? Does not compute."

    To me it feels like asking where the black servant people are when I watch a movie about a wealthy white family having thanksgiving. (This not being a racist comment, just an obsolete practice), or why Michael Jackson (if he was still alive) didn’t play more ABC-era hits at O2 and skipped those weird Thriller ones.

    But the fact that the british people have not had these kind of performances from Benny before is probably what is causing it all.

    I mean, just the fact that people are going all "OMG, it’s Benny! He’s back after 20 years of being completely gone!" feels weird to me, since he has been all over for a long time here in Sweden.

    Maybe it will just take some time for the british people to get used to the fact that the Benny of Olde is not the same person anymore, and let ABBA go.

    I mean, he said that people expecting ABBA would be disappointed, so why the frack even bring it up that there was not enough ABBA, in the articles?

    Fittingly enough, Super Trouper is playing in the background at the moment, for the Bingo show on TV4 🙂

  2. Hmm. A mix of positive and negative – but I, for one, did not notice any flagging vocalists ! And – it was a free concert, after all ! Who let reviewers in the park, lol !!?

    Gary

  3. Journalists, you gotta love em! I’ve been to hundreds of gigs, and Saturday afternoon was something special. I never went to hear Abba songs as Abba weren’t playing. To be honest I didn’t even intend to stay for the whole show as the idea of an afternoon of Swedish folk music didn’t rock my boat. But a few songs in I realised that there was something in the air, probably Bennys genius in presenting and composing the most wonderfull melodies. The best way to judge a gig is on the way out. I have never heard such universal praise. Complete strangers just saying to each other "wasn’t that brilliant" etc. As for the flagging vocals????? When. See the performance of "why did it have to be me" on YouTube and tell me what was flagging.

  4. Dear Mr Reviewer,

    You seem to have missed the point completely – were you expecting an ABBA concert and every one of us who attended to be disappointed if we didn’t get to hear the whole of the ABBA back catalogue?

    WRONG, MR REVIEWER, WRONG.

    The concert was performed by Benny Andersson’s Band – not ABBA – and that is why we went to Hampstead Heath on Saturday. We wanted to see the great man in the flesh, we wanted to see Helen Sjoholm & Tommy Korberg.

    I don’t honestly think that anybody there felt let down by the "lack of ABBA songs", there were three after all and that’s three more than I for one expected! (Although I did nearly burst my lungs singing along to all three).

    In conclusion, Mr Reviewer, don’t dare to presume that we were disappointed because we weren’t. The only disappointment is that the gig was reviewed by someone who obviously knows nothing about Benny’s extraordinary work and can only relate him to ABBA. Shame on you.

    My God, I feel better for that!!

    Phil x

  5. I thought Benny was brilliant, in that he allowed the other musicians to really shine. Complete lack of ego. If it had been Prince playing, we’d have been treated to the great Prince playing 20 minute piano & guitar solos all over the shop with everyone else playing second fiddle! We got the exact opposite with Benny, and for this reason, the music really communicated on an earthy level. I don’t know whether the Telegraph reviewer was intentionally creating an Anglo/Swede divide, but I sat high up on the bank, where loads of people of all ages and nationalities were dancing – it was lovely to see the kids enjoying themselves.

    As a complete aside, my partner had a hunch that we were sitting near a chap from the League of Gentlemen, a black comedy show we have in the UK. I didn’t recognise him, but maybe someone out there can confirm or deny this.

  6. I am English and I travelled from the Midlands to see BAO, Helen and Tommy. I love the songs and music of BAO I have been a fan of Helen’s since Kristina and Tommy’s since Chess. I got exactly what I wanted to see and had one of the best nights of my life. I love that they played a few Abba numbers but I would not have been disapointed if they hadn’t.
    I feel that this reviewer is out of touch and maybe should have talked to some of the crowd to see what they expected. The atmosphere where I was (about 10 yards back) was electric and every song was cheered with great excitement.

  7. Came from Ireland to see this gig. Well worth the journey. Anyone who expected ABBA is so out of touch. Part of Benny’s genius is his ability to write such diverse music. BAO played brillantly, Helen and Tommy both gave totally professional performances and even the weather conspired to make it a great day in Hamstead Heath.

  8. The lovely memory of gazing down towards the stage over a sea of people all clearly having a great time in the evening sun will stay in my mind for the rest of my life. But after a afternoon of watching a rather sad goodbye on TV, I realise the thing I’m most thankful for is how well and happy Benny looked. I think it’s this down-to-earth attitude and the ability to still enjoy such "modest" events which has kept him (and indeed the other three Abba members) sane and healthy.

  9. Came from France with wife and kids, and thought the gig was great, even more so if you already knew (beforehand) the songs played.
    Benny’s band is definitely made of gifted musicians, and kudos to him for providing such a wide variety of music.
    In short, it was all what a music evening in the park should be about.
    Great fun for all, young & old, musicians & crowd.

  10. This was one of the most enjoyable concerts that I have ever been to. It was happy, warmhearted music, and I stood for two and a half hours without even noticing it. All the BAO musicians are virtuosos, and Helen Sjoholm is a sheer delight to listen to and look at. Her performance as Gabriella in ‘As it is in Heaven’ showed her as a consummate actress, and she invariably merges completely with the songs that she sings. I really hope that we see more of them all in this country. Mycket, mycket bra!

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