Live at the
Nordic Roots Festival

(NorthSide, 2001)

First off, I need to make a disclaimer: if you listen hard, you can probably hear me whooping with the rest of the audience on this disc, which was recorded at the second annual Nordic Roots Festival in Minneapolis in April 2000. In its short life, this festival has gotten a reputation as the premier U.S. festival for lovers of Nordic roots music (not that there's a lot of competition). Artists who have played here include Groupa, Hedningarna, JPP, Annbjorg Lien, Wimme and many others. There's a certain camaraderie in the audience as well since a passion for this kind of music is not widespread in the States. The musicians often seemed bemused by their reception at the 2000 festival, as if they never expected to find such enthusiastic fans in the U.S.

Vasen is one of the best-known groups on the Nordic scene, and with good reason. This Swedish band is centered on Olov Johansson's mastery of the nyckelharpa while Mikael Marin and Roger Tallroth join him on viola and guitar, respectively. A few years ago, percussionist Andr Ferrari made Vasen a foursome. The band's name is difficult to translate, but some meanings include "spirit," "essence" and "noise." The musicians are equally adept at traditional numbers and pieces that stretch the boundaries of folk-based music while never losing their traditional roots. As good as the group is on record, Vasen is best live, when one can enjoy the interplay among the band members and their often droll senses of humor. True to their group's name, the musicians have a lot of spirit. The amount of energy that Vasen generates with its music is particularly astounding when one considers that they are an acoustic group.

Most of the tunes on this CD are drawn from Vasen's most recent studio albums Whirled and Gront. The recording is very clear, so that the dissonances found in Nordic music have a biting edge. The balance among the different instruments is good and the crowd noise does not overwhelm the music (as one of the noisy crowd, I am very relieved by that). Because of the sometimes harsh tones, this is probably not a good album for the novice to start with, but it is a delight for anyone with a confirmed taste for this music and essential for any Vasen fan.

The CD shows how Vasen feeds off the audience's energy by kicking out the jams and playing with even more verve, which in turn elicits more enthusiasm from the audience. This raw power may surprise listeners who only know Vasen from its well-crafted studio albums but it is no fluke and it is a pleasure to have this live fire captured on disc. (Vasen has a previous live album called Levande Vasen, but it was recorded before Ferrari joined the band.)

Classic Vasen material from the group's older albums is represented by "Byggnan," a lovely arpeggio-filled piece that would not be out of place in a Baroque music recital. It is a traditional number by the nyckelharpa master Byss-Calle, whose music has often been played by Johansson, both with Vasen and solo. The sublimnity of "Byggnan" is followed by the shrill, driving "Polska after Mats Berglund/Sld och Solde." The addition of Swedish fiddle duo Harv to this track creates a frenzied storm of strings that will be adored by some and will send those who dislike dissonance screaming from the room. "Dragos" is a Norwegian-sounding melody that Tallroth originally wrote for Annbjorg Lien's group, with which he frequently plays. It is therefore fitting that Lien joins Vasen on this track. The nyckelharpa and the Hardanger fiddle have similar voices, and they intertwine well here. Vasen also pays a musical visit to Finland with "JTT," a tribute of sorts to the Kaustinen fiddle orchestra JPP.

Vasen's more experimental side is demonstrated by the Ferrari composition "Shapons Vindaloo," in which the nyckelharpa plays the part of an Indian violin and Ferrari uses his breath as a percussion instrument. "Ploska," written by Marin, sounds like a hoedown run amok and features a sinuous duet between viola and percussion, with nyckelharpa and guitar slowly coming in. Although Johansson's nyckelharpa tends to attract the most attention, Marin's viola, Tallroth's guitar and Ferrari's percussion all get places to shine, and they should not be overlooked. Even the more traditional-sounding pieces have plenty of inventive touches and exciting playing.

My one quibble with this album is that the between-song patter that is a highlight of a Vasen concert is almost completely missing, with the exception of the "missing ones" episode chronicled in the last two numbers, "Nitti Pomfritti" and "Grannens Favorit." One also misses the visual impact of Vasen; the musicians are all tall and Johansson in particular is great fun to watch as he bows his nyckelharpa, taps his feet, sways with the rhythm and lets his gaze wander inquisitively around the audience, all at once. But these are minor points, because the life of Vasen is in the music and that is right here on this CD. It's truly the next best thing to being there, and I found myself as swept away by the music as I was when I heard it live. That's really all you can ask of any concert recording and this one delivers.

- Rambles
written by Jennifer Hanson
published 14 December 2002

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