Thursday, May 20, 2010

A-ha concert review: Los Angeles

A version of my review originally appeared in the OC Register.

When a-ha performed the propulsive orchestral-tinged hit “The Sun Always Shines on T.V.” during its encores at Club Nokia on Saturday night, a montage of old American movies and television shows was projected on a backdrop.

Watching brief images from 1980s NBC staples like “The Cosby Show” and “Miami Vice” brought to mind how another network – MTV - played a central role in the Norwegian synth pop trio’s short-lived stateside success.

The cable channel put the groundbreaking 1985 music video for buoyant single “Take on Me,” where telegenic vocalist Morten Harket was part of a comic strip come to life, into heavy rotation. Pop radio followed suit. The track went to No. 1, propelled debut album Hunting High and Low to platinum status and resulted in a Grammy nod for Best New Artist.

Despite a shift into more rock-oriented terrain, 1986’s Scoundrel Days was basically met with deaf ears here and the group faded from view. In Europe and South America though, it was a different story. An extended mid-‘90s break notwithstanding, a-ha’s international success continued (more than a dozen UK top 20 singles; a Guinness World Record for concert attendance in Rio).

More recently, a-ha’s ongoing influence has been seen through live covers by Jonas Brothers and Reel Big Fish. Leonard Cohen, Graham Nash, members of U2, Coldplay, Oasis, Keane and Pet Shop Boys have either collaborated with or professed their admiration in interviews for the Oslo natives. Animated TV sitcom “The Family Guy” even did a parody of “Take on Me.”

Ninth studio album Foot of the Mountain – a partial return to a-ha’s electronic roots - was released abroad last year. Rhino Records finally put out The Singles: 1984-2004 domestically and will make deluxe expanded editions of Hunting and Scoundrel available in late June exclusively through

The first of two sold-out shows at L.A. Live marked a-ha’s long-awaited return after a 24-year absence (tonight’s gig concludes the short North American portion of the global farewell tour). Before doors opened and concertgoers jockeyed for position behind the seated floor area, I encountered people that had flown in from the Bay Area, Portland and Chicago. All were ecstatic to see their Scandinavian idols one last time.

This was definitely a gig for the diehards; those who came for selections from the debut had a long wait. Mostly adhering to a reverse chronological order and touching upon every album in the catalog (including over half of Scoundrel), a-ha launched the enrapturing 95-minute set with an atmospheric “Bandstand.” Punctuated by percolating synths, it rivaled Depeche Mode’s latest work.

Another new one, the glorious, acoustic guitar-based single “Foot of the Mountain,” showcased Harket’s fluttering vocals. Gorgeous aerial shots of trees in the wilderness provided perfect visual accompaniment.

Harket, 50, clad in a dark suit jacket and dress pants, looked like he just stepped out of the pages of GQ. His equally sharply dressed bandmates, only a couple years younger, also appeared fit and trim. The frontman kept quiet, except to greet a former Warner Bros. Records exec he spotted from the stage. That left gregarious keyboardist Magne “Mags” Furuholmen to serve as a cheerleader of sorts, getting the crowd pumped up at various junctures.

Aided by a live drummer and a keyboardist/bassist, the 2000s material had a more sophisticated feel, while the freshly stripped down tunes (“Minor Earth, Major Sky,” “Summer Moved On” – where Harket had no trouble holding a long sustained note) worked wonders. Guitarist Paul Waaktaar-Savoy displayed some funky licks and engaged in a mini-jam with Harket and Furuholmen during “Move to Memphis.”

One early highlight came via the ultra dramatic “Stay on These Roads.” Harket’s robust falsetto got another fine workout here with more awe-inspiring notes. The extended title track to 1987 James Bond flick “The Living Daylights” (complete with 007 graphics) was bombastic, yet exciting. I’d forgotten how much it had in common with ‘80s rival Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill” since both shared a producer.

“Thanks for reminding us we have friends on this side of the ocean,” said Furuholmen, before playing a xylophone on the subtle “And You Tell Me” with just his two band mates onstage.

Elsewhere, the bizarre New Wave/rock tandem of Mellotron and eerie synths on “Manhattan Skyline” found fans responding to Harket’s “wave goodbye” refrain and the dance-oriented “Cry Wolf” was infectious retro fun. Supercharged finale “Take on Me,” paired with both the original video and other animated footage, plus Furuholmen’s modern keyboard sounds, definitely ended the performance on a high.

A-ha, Club Nokia, Los Angeles, May 15
Main set: Bandstand/Foot of the Mountain/Analogue (All I Want)/Forever Not Yours/Minor Earth. Major Sky/Summer Moved On/Move to Memphis/Blood That Moves the Body/Stay on These Roads/The Living Daylights/Scoundrel Days/The Swing of Things/And You Tell Me/Early Morning/We’re Looking for the Whales/Manhattan Skyline/I’ve Been Losing You/Cry Wolf

First encore:
Hunting High and Low/The Sun Always Shines on T.V.
Second encore: Take on Me

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