It’s difficult to imagine that a season as cold as winter has ever existed because it’s summer here at the moment, in Victoria, as I write this: it’s drought-weather and bushfire-weather, and every morning the papers tell us about new structures freshly incinerated. One day it’s outdoor laundries, the next it’s Craig’s Hut, and this morning it was an orchard of fresh cherries. Bird-nets melted in the heat. If the wind blows in the right direction then the sky goes dark with smoke and sitting high above us inside this smoke is a pellet of flourescent strawberry, which is the sun.
Then there’s this CD, performed by a band of Swedes on tour in Minneapolis, away there where it must be cold right now: winter, freezing; and people must be wearing boots and long-sleeved tops, trousers, thick socks, and facing no bushfires—but they’ve got no cherry harvest, either, so we’ve got that in common. Music, though. They do have that. (See, I get to the point eventually. Segue with me, if you will.) Minneapolis’ Cedar Cultural Center has been booking folk acts in various languages since ‘90, and for seven years they’ve been hosting an annual Scandinavian folk festival called Nordic Roots in partnership with NorthSide. The headlining acts at this festival are usually the same ones you’ll see in NorthSide’s catalogue: Gjallarhorn, Swåp, Harv, and so on, with exceptions made for musicians like Ellika Frisell and Solo Cissoko, who put out an album of duetting fiddle and kora in 2002. Really pretty album, too. Hoven Droven was there for the first festival in 1999, and there again in 2005 when their performance was recorded and turned into Jumping at the Cedar.
NorthSide has been promoting this group for years, releasing three of its albums in the States and including them on all of its samplers. If you already own Hippa, Groove, or More Happy Moments … then you’ll recognise some of the tunes on Jumping at the Cedar; but you’ll also notice that they sound different when they’re recorded live. Jumping has brought out the textural grunt of bow on fiddle-string, a sound that studio recordings tend to smooth and downgrade. This grunt is a reminder of the human effort that goes into the music, the hand that digs the bow into the strings, the presence of wood and synthetic gut. When a band decides to mix folk with rock, as this one does, then you might be tempted to wonder if they’re doing it so that they can cover up weaknesses in their acoustic playing with noisy distractions, all that sound and fury signifying sweet F.A., but when Hoven Droven winds down after a roaring tune with “Kom Hem”, a plainer, slower song, it’s clear that the band members could have formed a perfectly good straight folk band if they’d wanted to. That they have decided not to is a deliberate choice.
They know how to make the traditional music work with their electric guitar, saxophone, and drum kit so that the rhythm of the folk tunes is enhanced, not smothered. In some of their arrangements they lay down a low-pitched, driving chug from the bass and then dance the fiddle over the top, steepling one sound over the other so that the chug seems to be taking the place, effectively, of a drone, and I’m reminded of Gjallarhorn and the didjeridu they use in place of native bagpipes. The guitar darts out from behind the fiddle, heads off into hair-band masturbatory howls, then retreats again; and the fiddle sounds fresher now, a sharp thing emerging from a cloudy bath.
This two-disc set covers more or less the whole performance, with the removal of some “boring anecdotes between songs”, a slight re-ordering of the setlist, and one bit of re-recording to cover a broken guitar string on “Okynnesvals”. The fiddler Kjell-Erik Eriksson plays showman, shouting, “Are you having a good time?” and “I like this one” and “Folk off!” “Are you ready for a waltz?” he calls at the beginning of “Okynnesvals” and the crowd reacts. He says it again. “Are you ready for the waltz?” They are. It’s a big, fast waltz, with Bo Lindberg’s guitar coming down in plungey smashes. Everything goes forward in a powerful rush. Most of the album is like this, moving forcefully in Swedish dance-time. Tune after tune rises and rears and smashes down, coming to rest here and there in the calm pools of “Kom Hem” and “Årepolska”.
The impressive thing about Hoven Droven is not that they manage to make folk tunes loud and sweaty, but that they manage to inject such variety into the loudness. It doesn’t all sound like the same kind of loud. The jiggety-jig of “Morsepolskan” bobs up and down in jagged stamps, bringing out the howl of the fiddle; but the jiggety-jig of “Slentbjenn” comes from the guitar as well as the sawn strings, and the jiggety-jig of “Köttpolska” starts off as a parody of Teutonic metal bands. “Fleisch!” yells Eriksson. “Meatballs!”
Jumping at the Cedar is an excellent live recording; clean yet not too clean, with the crowd contributing just enough to make the concert seem memorable, but not so much that it overwhelms the band. Hoven Droven itself comes across as a powerhouse of strings and drums. By the end of the album I was trying to sort out how I could see them myself, somewhere, some day. Here, maybe, if we can stop being on fire for a bit.