After an impressive start, by:Larm kicked into high gear on Friday, and the entire evening, for this writer anyway, couldn’t have been more eclectic, ranging from a performance that redefines the word “intimate”, to four nutty girls and a balalaika, to the kind of scorching jazz that would make Wynton Marsalis have a coronary, to galloping old school metal, to the triumphant return of Norway’s indie darling.
Norwegian singer-songwriter Hanne Hukkelberg made North American critics’ heads turn with her debut Little Things (including us here at PopMatters), and built on that momentum with last year’s dreamy Rykestrasse 68. Unfortunately for those of us stuck on the west side of the Atlantic, that critically acclaimed follow-up wasn’t released domestically, something Nettwerk is determined to rectify with the imminent ‘08 release of the record as well as a major US tour next month. So, to whet our appetites, Hukkelberg’s Norwegian prepresentation took a dozen or so of journos and music reps out to Oslo’s Propeller Studios for a quaint little showcase performance, where she and her four bandmates squeezed into a tiny, deathly quiet room with the rest of us for a gorgeous selections of songs from the new(ish) album. Whether it was the asthmatic wheeze of an accordion being pulled. the sustained chime of a Tibetan singing bowl, the innocent strains of a toy piano, or Hukkerlberg’s own tender voice, it made for an extraordinary experience that only enhanced the quiet power of the record.
Back at the festival, the one venue that had some of us wary was the VG Teltet, a gigantic white tent set up smack in the middle of Younstorget square, but jaws collectively dropped upon entry, as the carpeting, drapery-like roof, light rigs, and big lounge area with couches would have you believe you were anywhere but outside in the middle of downtown Oslo. And it was here that one of the bigger surprises of the week happened, as the female foursome Katzenjammer came out and made jaws drop. Part Nordic folk, part energetic pub tunes, part country, these young ladies came off as a cross between the Dixie Chicks and Gogol Bordello, each ridiculously talented member trading instruments between songs, moving from piano to mandolin to a gigantic bass balalaika that was taller than any of them, and the charismatic bunch won over the big crowd instantly. [player]
A few blocks away at the cleverly-arranged Rockefeller club, bands were busy trading off sets with finely-tuned precision, punters dashing form the main venue to the much cozier “annex” and back again in between sets. Norway’s In Vain offered a respectable mix of blackened death metal, doom, and prog and local faves Sahg, a band for whom Black Sabbath’s “Hole in the Sky” is the Rosetta Stone (I mean that in a good way) sounded near flawless, the strong tenor voice of singer/guitarist Olav Iversen bringing to the band the kind of added dimension that trendier American counterparts the Sword desperately lack. However, it was jazz trio the Thing that was the best of the lot, who channeled the neo-beatnik cool of Morphine with a much more aggressive element than the sorely-missed band ever did, using pedals, pitchshifters, and a laptop to take the saxophone-bass-drums trio into some exciting territory, sounding both avant-garde and primal. [player]
Around the corner at Sentrum Scene, an enormous crowd awaited native daughter Ida Maria, who went into 2008 riding a big wave of hype following her performance at CMJ last October and now has the British press drooling all over her, this without an album that has yet to be released. Thanks to blogs and filesharing, though, the audience on this night knew the words to such faves as the lightly shuffling “Louie”, the somber “Going to Hell”, and the raucously catchy “Better When You’re Naked”, their enthusiasm responded in kind by Ms. Maria, who flung herself all over the stage, crashing into mic stands and band members, writhing on the floor, whipping her top off. It was during the brilliant “Oh My God”, one of the best tunes of 2007, that the entire exhausting night came to a head, a final explosion of energy that had us walking, heavy-legged back to our hotels to try to recuperate enough to withstand one more night. [player]