Väsen’s Keyed Up, and live at Portland, Maine, September 23, 2004

cover artReviewing a group more than once always presents the danger of repeating oneself, especially if the group isn’t known for taking extreme left turns with each release. With Väsen, it seems that each recording reveals music that just gets deeper and more meaningful without seeming to be repetitious – a bit like a baker who has an inner talent to begin with and just keeps turning out more luscious variations on that fabulous pie.

One evening recently, as life had been going rather poorly for me, I was moping around the house feeling sorry for myself. Having just received Keyed Up it seemed like a good a time as any to listen. Their upcoming US tour was also going to be bringing them to Portland, Maine, near where I live.

Mikael Marin (viola, violin), Olov Johansson (3-row chromatic nyckelharpa, kontrabasharpa), and Roger Tallroth (12-string guitar, Swedish bosoki) have once again proven that you can’t listen to their brand of Swedish acoustic music and remain in a bad mood. From the opening track, “Björkbergspolskan,” to the last, “Tomten kommer,” this recording is a wealth of beautiful sounds, superb compositions, and impeccable musicianship that simply made me forget how grumpy I was.

As I listened through the first time, I thought about how hard they must have worked on these pieces. Their arrangements are tight but not dryly technical, and their connection to one another musically and emotionally is obvious. Later, while reading the liner notes by Rob Simonds, I was made aware that this new repertoire had been recorded while the tunes where practically brand new, and each track was recorded in one or two takes. The liner notes quote Johansson, who says that they had decided that “too much rehearsal can be a bad thing. The more we rehearse, the more Roger likes to mess around with his part, which makes it hard for Mikael to find his part. The alternative is to lock into an arrangement early which can make things too stiff.”

I like a group that decides to shake things up when they feel it’s time for a challenge, and are willing to risk giving the producer heart failure in order to pull it off!

The result is a lively and alive recording that is fun, stimulating, and achingly beautiful. Many of the tunes are in honor of family members, friends, and places. Each member contributes as a composer and all of the music is original. As usual, though, the traditional sensibilities of Swedish music come through loud and clear. It is in their bones, after all, and they pump up the tradition with life from the present day.

Johnson’s nyckelharpa is often the melody maker, Michael’s strings fill the middle ground as the glue between the melody and Tallroth’s amazing rhythm guitar/bass/percussion. Let me qualify that last comment: Tallroth only plays the guitar and bosoki, but on those instruments he holds down the rhythm with whatever it takes: chords, bass lines, percussive sounds; and when it’s time for him to take on a melody or harmony, he’s right in the ring with Johansson and Marin. The same can be said for Johansson and Marin when it comes to role changing – all three musicians are quite capable of changing positions as the music requires.

It was a thrill to see them perform this material, along with some old favorites, in Maine. Their concert was held in Portland in the beautiful parish hall of the State Street Church. The event was produced by the Center for Cultural Exchange.

Their energy was sparkling on this evening. The audience was grooving – yes, grooving. I was very surprised that people didn’t get up to dance given the rate of foot tapping and head bobbing going on. I think if there had been a couple of uninhibited souls, the crowd would have just pushed the chairs aside and spilled into the middle of the room with movement.

This performance was toward the end of their very busy two weeks in the states, but you wouldn’t have guessed that they were operating on little sleep and lots of travel time. These men love what they do and they do it so well. You can see it in their interaction on stage and the way they get the room to sway back and forth with the music. Three tall Swedes swaying with those polskas made me feel like I was on a schooner. And they were sure to swing in the same direction so as not to confuse our own rocking! Their snappy patter in between songs is wonderfully funny; great jokes and stories. There was not a sullen face in the crowd.

I didn’t detect any large differences between the live performance arrangements and those heard on the recording. I suppose if you played a live performance back to back with the studio recording you might hear a little variation, but it wasn’t obvious to me. What I did notice, and this is true about the concert I attended a couple of years ago in Brunswick, is the range of dynamics. They are especially adept at creating the peaks and valleys of intensity, both in simple volume and in density of sound. The live performance is one step deeper than the CD. This is true for many musicians. There really is nothing like a live performance, especially with a group that truly loves to perform and feeds off the energy from the audience.

A great night was had by all, and Keyed Up is a great CD to add to your collection.

(Northside, 2004)

Barb Truex

Barbara Truex lives in southern Maine where she performs, composes, and creates sound designs. She performs regularly with three groups, works with local theaters, audio drama producers, and hosts a world music program on community radio. Her instruments of choice are electric and acoustic mountain dulcimers, banjo and baritone ukuleles, tenor guitar and hand percussion. Musical meanderings include (but are not limited to) improvisation, jazz, French traditional, Middle Eastern, Eastern European and of course American folk music. www.barbtruex.com www.mainesqueeze.com www.darkfollies.com

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