Benny Andersson Band gig review
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.