Dungen want to be Led Zeppelin. There, I said it. And it’s true. Not only is the lead singer and Dungen brainchild Gustav Ejstes a dead ringer for Robert Plant (Google Image their names to see it for yourself) but Dungen’s music is a similar-sounding, freewheeling, jam-filled blend of free jazz, Swedish folk and psychedelic rock. During their performance at Brooklyn’s Bell House, I half expected the boys to come out swinging with a Swedish rendition of “Fool in the Rain.” Indeed, the very thing that sets Dungen apart from their 1970s doppelgangers is that they sing each song in sweet-sounding Swedish. Which leads me to wonder, if Dungen didn’t sing in Swedish, a language so completely unknown to the average American, would they even be half as popular?
Despite the copycat jabs a critic could take at Dungen, the evening of their performance had a promising vibe. Opening acts included Brooklyn-based minimalist-psychedelic act Ducktails and the crooning, electric jams of Woods. The two openers acted as a slick primer for the night that lay ahead, and by the end of their sets the Bell House had stuffed itself to the brim with young, hip Brooklyn residents.
Before Dungen walked in, the stage was arranged with multiple instruments, including a miniature piano/keyboard, a flute lying atop the piano, and a fine selection of guitars. Once they finally stepped onstage, Dungen met with loud appreciative applause, and the men onstage produced genuine grins in return. Obviously, Dungen were thrilled to be playing in New York, as so many foreign artists are. Lead singer Ejstes’ hair looked so thick, curly and blonde that my initial thought was “geez, how many women would kill for that kind of volume?”
During their one and a half hour set, Dungen mostly stuck to new tracks off of the recently released 4, and finished off with closing tracks and encores from their earlier releases, most notably 2006’s Ta Det Lugnt. Throughout their energetic performance, Ejistes played enthusiastically, and took different instruments into his hands for every other song. At times he’d sit at the piano, bending over so his long Robert Plant hair fell over his face, pausing to brush it back so that he could play the flute, or croon to the crowd. Each song on the set list was long and all consuming. Songs like “SÄTT ATT SE” and “Festival” were accompanied by lengthy textured jams, where each instrument fit into each other knowingly, as if the men on stage weren’t playing them, but the instruments were playing the men. By the set’s end, Dungen’s guitarist Reine Fiske looked like he was about to keel over, but like a true rock star, he reappeared on stage for a rousing encore.
Now, even a skeptical New York audience will be downright enthralled with a group of skinny Swedes expertly playing a stage littered with instruments, with an end result that recalls a lost era in music. Everyone who claims to enjoy music is likely to lap up the familiar strains of 1960-70s psychedelic folk, in this particular case emulating The Creation, Love, Zeppelin and the Who. Dungen are certainly not the first and only band to pluck their influences from the classic rock record bin, but the sheer likeness of their sound (not to mention their aesthetic) is cause for some cynical head scratching. Again, the question: Are Dungen only famous in America because they sing in Swedish? The answer is probably yes, they are, but luckily no one, not even pop critics, seem to mind, because Dungen are technically excellent musicians. It might even be because Dungen’s demeanor is the anti-rock star. Their onstage smiles, gratitude and grace are what sifts and separates Dungen from the pile of Zeppelin wannabes. Anyway, the Zeppelin likeness has to stop somewhere, because let’s be serious: Jimmy Page would never have looked that exhausted by the show’s end.