Morten Harket impresses live crowd
by Sabine Clement
Tuesday, May 8, 2012. A year and a half have passed since a-ha pulled out the plug and the three bandmembers went their individual ways. But, as was announced during that fantastic last gig in Oslo, all three of them keep making music, and so their ways might cross with those of old and new audiences again.
Tonight sees one of those first meetings. Morten Harket, the voice of a-ha, has embarked on a solo tour, which took him from Russia to Germany and now Belgium. At the concerts, he performs songs both from his own repertoire as well as from a-ha’s back catalogue. This gives him a wide range of work to choose from: next to a-ha’s nine studio albums, Harket can present no less than five solo releases as well, including his latest “Out Of My Hands” (2012, Island Records).
The AB is not sold out, but the hall still fills up nicely, leaving only the balconies empty. In the front row, a lot of different languages can be heard. French and Flemish, naturally, but there are also people from Holland, France, Germany, Italy and even a family from Russia. Anatoli, Yuliya and eleven-year old daughter Ulya have seen Morten’s concerts in Moscow and Berlin, and now they are here in Brussels. So, what did they think of those two previous gigs?
“Morten’s singing was fantastic, but I think tonight’s atmosphere is going to be better. In Moscow, the tickets were rather expensive, so the hall was not very full and then it is not so easy to get into it,” Anatoli explains.
The audience is indeed buzzing with excitement. Everyone eagle-eyes the happenings on stage and in the aisles.
Behind the stage, we see a simple white linewand, which replaces the tall curtain from the previous shows as a backdrop for the lightshow. On the left, a drumset is gleaming in the spotlights, and a little further, at center back, Erik Ljungren’s keyboard stand resides. Next to that one, there’s Morten’s black acoustic guitar, gifted by The Everly Brothers, together with a pile of towels and a few water bottles.
Meanwhile, everything is set up for folk band Songdog, the collective around singer/songwriter (and award-winning playwright) Lyndon Morgans.
Songdog delivers a 45 minute set, which is of striking melancholic and evocative beauty, underlined with a raw voice that tells of memories, religion and lust. Not everyone catches on with the music or the lyric, but many people in the audience seem to be truly listening. “The view is not great, but I do like the sound,” a German woman says, and her friends agree.
Immediately after Songdog’s performance, stagehands and roadies appear. Cables get connected, monitors are moved around, the famed Everly Brothers guiter is tuned. The second waiting begins, and this time, people know it’s “for real”. Occasional shouting breaks out and demands for “Morten! Morten!” are heard.
Finally, the lights dim anew. Cheering follows instantly. A heavy drone fills the hall, smoke gets blown on stage and the purple spotlights jump in. On walks Morten, a broad smile on his face. The right hand comes up in greeting, then veers down and perches the aviator sunglasses firmly on the nose. We have lift-off.
With its catchy rhythm, “Burn Money Burn” immediately grabs the audience by the lapels and it won’t let go for the rest of the night. “I’m The One” and “Keep The Sun Away”, both from the new album, follow in quick succession. Morten’s voice seems in good shape and this threesome of songs does a proper job as a vocal warming-up. There is, however, a lot of fiddling with both ear and belt monitor, and a fair amount of handsignalling towards the technician’s control desk.
Also the three backing musicians, on drums, keyboard and guitar, are getting their cues from Morten. It’s clear that he’s the main driver here, the director.
Apart from that, he has now taken up the task of in-between-song entertaining as well. Tonight shows Morten in a very relaxed and talkative mood, commenting on things he sees and hears in the crowd, and then even commenting his own comments, which results in quite a bit of laughter.
“Crying In The Rain” brings on a first selection of a-ha songs. When the characteristic sounds of rain and thunder are heard, there are shouts of recognition and appreciation. Originally an Everly Brothers song, a-ha have given it so much of their own spin that it’s easy to look upon it as vintage a-ha indeed. And tonight, much of the song is still easily recognized from their version. But then, guitarist Dan Sundhorvik veers off the path and adds some rather heavy noise to the wails. This is a-ha but not quite a-ha.
The next song on the setlist is “Out Of Blue Comes Green” (1988), which was chosen by the fans in an online polling. Not an easy choice for Morten, as it’s quite difficult to sing. How will he fare? What follows is a beautiful rendition of the fragile, yet powerful song, with Morten perfectly hitting all the difficult notes.
In the audience, Lien is impressed. “It is and remains a beautiful voice,” she comments. “Both a beautiful singing voice and a very sympathetic speaking voice. Fantastic in every aspect. What a talent.”
“Move To Memphis and “Forever Not Yours” conclude the first selection of a-ha songs.
With 13 gigs under their belt now, the band is coming together pretty well. Drummer Karl Oluf Wennerberg lends a strong arm to many songs and guitarist Dan Sunhordvik picks his moments of glory quite well. In the back, Erik Ljunggren is adding a multitude of synth sounds into the mix.
Morten straps on his own guitar for the songs that he (co-)wrote. Often enough, though, he simply holds it without playing. There’s too much fiddling with all the things and devices plugged into him to make playing feasable. Occasionally, you can see how his fingers form a chord or how they are ready to strike, then they quickly move off to turn a wheel or touch his ear instead.
“A Kind Of Christmas Card”, which is about a prostitute trying to explain her life to her parents, seems a difficult song in any case, with Morten reaching toward his troath or thumping on his chest. But the singing stays on key. The only time the vocal goes noticeably wrong is during “Spanish Steps”, where the ending is suddenly all over the place.
Judging from the crowd’s response, one of the evening’s highlights is “We’re Looking For The Whales”. Morten announces the song with explaining how this was the song that made a-ha a band. “We were making demos, waiting for something to happen. But nothing did. And then we did this one. And it happened.”
And off they go, and they give the song so much energy – Wennerberg is battering like crazy, Ljunggren has the whales singing, Sunhordvik is using all of the stage and Morten grabs a tambourine and joins in the rhythm. The audience is on a high, dancing and clapping, and they will keep it up until deep into the next song’s intro.
That next song is “Just Believe It”, and its complicated nature seems to bewilder the audience. A repetitive keyboard pling sounds ominous in the night and quickly turns the joyful atmosphere its predecessor had brought. Perhaps not the most logical order of songs, unless you wish to keep the audience on its toes.
“Lightning” concludes the first part of the set, but Morten returns for two more encores. And then, at long last, Morten himself seems to have had enough of the fidgeting and takes out the earplugs. “I don’t want to hear myself, as strange as that may sound!” he claims. People respond in disbelief. “Oh, you have no idea,” he smiles and launches into “Lay Me Down Tonight”.
Finally, it’s time for “that one strange, corny song, which has gotten to my legs. Or not just my legs, it’s in my spine as well… Here’s “Take On Me”.”
For the last time, Morten, backing musicians and crowd bundle forges and together, we dance and sing the night out. A thank you, a flag, a bouquet, a wave, they’re gone.
The background music is turned on again. Everyone moves out of the hall and into the foyer. The bar attracts some attention, the merchandise shop a lot more. All around, I see clusters of people talking, smiling, reminiscing.
“I liked that it sounded heavier,” Olivier says, “with the guitar and the drums. This is a concert to remember.”
“It was great,” Adry comments. “Sure, I missed Paul’s rocking and Magne’s playful touch, but Morten sounded fantastic. And man, has he turned into the entertainer or what?”
The verdict seems to be pretty unanimous: this was a top notch performance by “the voice of a-ha”. The AB is renowned for its deep, rich sound, and Morten used the venue’s acoustics to his – and their – full advantage. He sang beautifully, no way around it. The atmosphere was superb, the night a success.
The family from Moscow shares the general opinion. “We want to go to Paris too, now,” they say. “Do you think we could still find tickets?”
Text and pictures (c) Sabine Clement