Väsen’s Live på Gamla Bion

imageVäsen is one of my favorite instrumental folk groups. If you don’t know Väsen, this performance DVD is a superb introduction to these highly skilled and very personable Swedish musicians.

Väsen is Mikael Marin on viola, Olov Johansson on nykelharpa, and Roger Tallroth on guitar. As of 2014 they had been together for 25 years, performing traditional Swedish folk music and their own compositions in the traditional style. As part of their 25th anniversary tour they filmed an intimate concert at one of their favorite venues, Gamla Bion (“the old cinema”) in Örsundsbro, Sweden. This video DVD/audio CD set presents that concert pretty much as it happened, 15 tunes before a small but appreciative audience in a warm wooden theater on a hot summer evening in July 2014. On the CD, the musicians’ remarks between songs are edited out, but on the DVD their song introductions remain, in Swedish with nicely legible subtitles in English.

In a rarity for me, I actually prefer the DVD version of this concert program. The concert footage is nicely shot, using good angles and paying attention to the performers’ faces and bodies as well as their instruments. Three cameras were used, one to stage left for closeups of the musicians’ faces and instruments; one from back of the hall for straight-on shots of all three or individuals; and one from the balcony to show the crowd, stage and musicians. The editing is unobtrusive. The sound mix is excellent, especially on the DVD, which to my ears sounds much sharper and clearer. I’ve seen Väsen about a half-dozen times, and they always seem to have paid close attention to their sound presentation so that the audience can clearly hear each of the three instruments as well as the trio’s music as a whole. On headphones, the DVD version captures that experience very well, each instrument standing out cleanly and contributing to the full ensemble sound, which always seems much bigger than possible from a trio. A lot of that is due to the instrumentation, with Marin playing a viola rather than violin, and Tallroth making much use of the guitar’s bass strings, both instruments together providing an adequate base under Johansson’s nykelharpa, which most often carries the melody alone or in tandem or counterpoint with the viola.

The concert documentary has two sections of short interviews with the musicians, one before the concert and one at intermission. They discuss what it means to them to perform this music in a live setting, what they hope the audience gets out of it and what they get out of it. You get a sense of what personable, down-to-earth fellows the men of Väsen really are, and their joy and humility at being able to make a living playing this music for audiences around the world. During the intermission, violist Marin talks about the process of arranging a tune for Väsen to play. Then the interviewer asks Tallroth about the group’s dynamics: “Is it three soloists, then, or . . . ?”

Then you have to define soloist, but in principle there are three voices simultaneously saying something greater than each individual, sort of, if you see what I mean. That’s how I experience it — you can’t remove one, but all three become something bigger when we get together than we are separately, I think. That’s what Vasen is for us.

A couple of the tunes are either new or from an album older than the approximately eight years that I’ve been a fan (they’ve produced about a dozen studio albums as well as a few live recordings). But most of them are from the past three or four records, most of them clear audience favorites incuding “Hundlåten” or “The Dog Tune,” written by Marin in honor of his canine; “Flippen,” which has become a bluegrass standard around the world since the American group Punch Brothers recorded it; and my favorite “Linneus Polones,” one of many delightful tunes from their 2007 release in honor of the Swedish geneticist’s 300th birthday. They end with a final encore of Tallroth’s absolutely beautiful tune “Pilvi & Esko’s Wedding Waltz,” which he composed and they played for the wedding of Esko Jarvela, who is the son of fiddler Mauno Jarvela of the Finnish group JPP. It’s a sweet and peaceful way to end a show. As always, the men of Väsen really know how to engage an audience, and the audience always responds.

(Northside, 2014)

Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.

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