If you know nothing about a-ha, the primer on this post can be found here, wherein Huffington Post music writer Tony Sachs discusses his wife's life-long obsession with a-ha and why this particular concert tour is so momentous.
OK, that done. SCREEEEEEEEM!!!!!!!!!!
Who ever, ever, ever thought that Keven and I would get to see a-ha? We've loved them for years, with a rare marital synergy of appreciation that probably only extends to Interpol. We rarely agree on music and certainly not to this extent. I think because they're practically unknown here in the US, our adoration actually grew. It was being part of a secret club of maniacs who knew they still produced (amazing) albums after the 80s.
There's just something about moody pop music that totally grabs me. Forget angsty rock. Give me Suede or U2's darker songs or Depeche Mode or The Killers' Hot Fuss...where a synthesizers move beyond mere pop and turn into something gut-wrenching. That's what a-ha can manage, and why I like some of their Norwegian successors like Kurt Nilsen and Espen Lind. Only pretty-boy pop singers can get away with some of a-ha's songs about domestic violence and despair. It's all in there! Promise!
But that secret club quality was also our downfall. Being a-ha fans in American exile meant resigning ourselves to never being able to see them live. Aside from a one-off show they performed in New York in 2005, they haven't played a concert in North America since 1986!! The closest they came on their tour to promote Analogue was Rio de Janeiro. So the fact that Keven found out they were playing a mere hour from here, at the Riviera Theater in north Chicago, and that he managed to get us tickets is still breathtaking.
There they were!!
I was reminded of the first time I saw U2, which was at Solider Field in 1997 for their PopMart Tour. It was a strange experience, where "seeing" them meant peering at a few very tiny, tiny men at the end of a tremendously huge football field packed to the brim with people. But the impact on me was tremendous. There they were!! The music they were playing was happening in the moment!
This was a very similar sort of experience, except I was about 15 feet from the stage last night. Thanks to the miracles of modern technology, I have stolen these other people's digital photos. Why bother taking pictures of my own if the Interwebz are happy to do it for me? Same with video recordings. This woman's YouTube channel has four clips from the show we saw last night, including "Bandstand" off their new album, which was actually massively better live. I think it was the very enthusiastic drummer that made it fly. I'm hoping more people will post video over the weekend.
Anyway, this was pretty much my perspective for the show:
Every three or four songs, I would turn to Keven and yank on his arm and scream, "LOOK AT HIM!" Yes, Morten is still supernaturally handsome. He's cryogenically age-defying. Mange looked great too and seemed to be having an absolute ball. If Morten is the face and the voice of a-ha, then Mags is the heart. He wore a smile almost all night and was very into the crowd's enthusiasm. Paul was sorta Paul-like, except that he's grown into himself and his silver hair, off in his own world where guitars are very important. He's always been the esoteric one, the brain behind the lyrics and the musical direction.
They started with "Bandstand" and worked backward through time. "Summer Moved On," from their fabulous 2000 album Minor Earth, Major Sky, was hilarious. This is a song built for a falsetto athlete--one for the record books. From Wikipedia: "Morten Harket holds the European record for the longest note held in a Top 40 pop song. During the song 'Summer Moved On' Harket sustains a note for 20.2 seconds (32 measures)." He entirely duffed the lyrics to the second verse, which made me giggle because a) he laughed about it, and b) I always mess up that verse too. And then...the note! He held that bad boy! The crowd went mental, as if they'd just seen Evel Knievel jump a line of cars.
They played in reserve chronological order only up to a point. When they skipped "Early Morning" and "I've Been Losing You," I got upset. What? No! But they kinda played fast and loose with the order once they hit the 80s. "Manhattan Skyline" featured a bullhorn, and they played "Early Morning" and "And You Tell Me" as an acoustic break-down, with Paul on guitar and Mags on a little xylophone (here and here from one of the concerts in New York last week).
"The Swing of Things" gave me goose bumps--how can I sleep with your voice in my head?--and "Stay on These Roads" made me cry. When they started in on "I've Been Losing You," I was in heaven. That was the last of my absolute favorites that remained in doubt. Would they play it? Maybe not? But then they did and I was a crazy person. They followed it right up with "Cry Wolf," which found Keven and I holding hands and jumping up and down like kids. We were genuine psychos.
Keven noticed that he and I and one dude behind us were just about the only people who knew all the words. Videos from the New York shows reveal that those fans were out in force, singing along like crazy. Maybe Chicago was light on the hardcore types? Our crowd seemed like they were just waiting around all night for "Take On Me." There were quite a few younger people in the crowd, which makes me think they had no idea what was going on or how momentous the night was. Keven suggested that maybe their moms hadn't been able to find a babysitter. Ouch!
And the "we're so old" factor certainly played a part in last night. It was a time capsule of sorts, a living historical document. It was 1985, sure, but that means harkening back to my life as a nine-year-old--a little bit of a stretch. It was more about my life with Keven and the amazing thing it is to contemplate how long these men have been performing together.
This was their farewell tour, called "Ending on a High Note," and you could tell they meant it. During the rounds of applause for their encore songs--"The Sun Always Shines on TV," "Hunting High and Low," and "Take On Me"--all three repeatedly closed their eyes and just stood there, soaking in the love. These were men saying goodbye to their youth and to the days when they set the world records. (The biggest concert of all time was when they played at "Rock in Rio II" in January 1991 in front of 198,000 people.) Last night they performed to maybe 1,500, but they seemed to appreciate it no less.
I could imagine Little Big Man saying, "And thus ended my pop star period."
So how great has my week been? Wow! I'm still just amazed and utterly breathless that I got the chance to be there. I don't think I'll ever have another night like it, and I was so happy to be holding Keven's hand as we watched a trio of pop star myths made real.