A Camp

Monday night I went to see the A Camp concert in Stockholm. It was good, but I think that’s about as far as I can go for superlatives. Honestly, it was fairly anti-climactic. That statement in itself is disappointing to me, but it’s probably due to my expectations.

Anyone who knows me well also knows that I am not a huge music fan. I really don’t like a lot of music. People think I’m joking when I say that I don’t really like music that much, since I have played music for years, run my own labels, and worked with several labels. Nonetheless, I think it’s safe to say that I don’t really like about 90% of the music I hear. Maybe the number is higher than that.

That said, there are a few artists that I am just crazy about and I have everything they’ve ever done. Nina Persson is one of those select few artists. The Cardigans are one of my favorite bands and I really loved A Camp’s first album. Their new album, “Colonia,” hasn’t quite struck me as immediately the same way yet, but that’s not to say that it won’t. I do like it a lot.

Growing up in Kentucky made it virtually impossible to see a Swedish band like the Cardigans. They just aren’t one of those bands that plays 50-date tours in the United States, so Louisville was never on the short list of American cities they visited. To the best of my knowledge, Chicago is the closest they ever came to my hometown, which is about five hours away. I remember back in 1999, after touring in Europe, I spent some time in Sweden and stayed with my friend Julia in Stockholm. At that time, the Cardigans were in America when I was in Sweden and they were going to be playing in Sweden shortly after I returned to America. A near miss, sadly, because that was around the time of their amazing “Gran Turismo” album.

In February of this year, just after I arrived in Sweden, I was in Malmö and saw a poster for the A Camp tour. I almost shit my pants. What an astonishing Welcome-to-Sweden present this seemed to be. After more than a decade of devouring everything I could get my hands on that Nina Persson had set her mind to, I would finally be able to see her sing live. On top of that, I would actually be seeing her in Stockholm. It had all the makings for a dream come true and, you know, I guess it really was such an event.

My favorite artists always seem to end up being ones that I think I will never be able to see performing live. That makes it all the more remarkable when I am in the same room with them, hearing their real voice right in front of me. For legendary artists like Johnny Cash or Jerry Lee Lewis, those moments were unforgettable.

When A Camp took the stage tonight, opening with “The Crowning,” the lights were dim so we could really only see the band’s silhouettes. Nina’s voice filled the room. This was something special for me. I was genuinely surprised that it was happening. At that moment I thought to myself, “Look at you. Look at where you are and what you are doing. How did all this happen?” Truly surreal.

The concert was at Cirkus, the same venue where we saw Franz Ferdinand a couple weeks ago. The space holds less than two thousand people and there’s not a bad seat in the house. I should say, the only way there could be a poor view is if they don’t turn the fucking lights on. For the first song, I thought the dim lights and silhouette effect were for dramatic purposes. After two songs, three songs, four songs, it became clear that this was as bright as the lights were going to get.

The same situation was going on with the sound. Nina’s voice was loud and clear, but most everything else was flat, and the overall volume level was just not there. There was no punch to any of it, the kick drum was hardly audible, and it simply wasn’t engaging the way it should have been. I know that all the necessary elements were on stage, I could gather that much, but for some reason the lighting and mix were put together in a way that drained out most of the magic.

I think there was a direct correlation between the dim lights, underwhelming sound, and the audience reaction, which I could best describe as “seated and polite.” I felt like, “This is Nina Persson in Stockholm – this place should be on its feet.” Instead, it seemed like everyone was watching a stage play. I wondered if I was the only one there who knew their records. Usually when you hear the beginning of a song you like, you cheer, right? That wasn’t happening at all. I would have felt like I was interrupting something had I clapped during the beginning of a song.

The closer photos you see here of Nina are from one of the encore songs during which the lights were almost at a normal concert brightness. During the encore, I moved to the floor where some seats had opened up. Most of the other photos I took are worse than what I could see with my eyes, or I would have posted more of them.

Well, I don’t want to belabor these points, because the concert was good. It just wasn’t extraordinary or breathtaking, which is what I had hoped for. I love their songs and I love most everything Nina has done. Perhaps you should expect to be disappointed if you expect something to be phenomenal.

All that notwithstanding, the ticket wasn’t cheap – 380 kronors (about $48) – but I would have paid double that if I had to. I would have gone alone, too, but I didn’t have to do that either. Although, I kind of had a hard time finding someone to go with. Most of my friends in Stockholm weren’t into going, which I suppose I also find a bit surprising. If I had to tell you what kind of music my friends here are into, I’m not sure I could. I hear so much crazy, random stuff, and none of it is much like anything else that gets played. I know Iida really likes Smashing Pumpkins and Lilly Allen, but I’ve also heard her listening to Genesis and, well, I don’t recognize most of what I hear. I can’t even begin to tell you what it is or what it sounds like. Erik is in three different bands and none of them sound like each other.

There is an annual televised music competition here called Melodifestivalen that is like American Idol, except they are all original songs. So it’s a songwriting, production, performance, and singing tournament, not just singing. There are tons of these Melodifestivalen songs from past years that people listen to, and everyone knows the words to all of them, but I can’t say if everyone genuinely likes the songs, or if it’s a novelty thing.

In any event, I put the word out that I was looking for someone to go to the concert with, and my friend Johanna came through. She wasn’t going, but she put me in touch with her friend Marja who was. I met up with Marja, her sister Kajsa, and their friends Matthias and Anna, before the show. We enjoyed some beers, then took the bus to Cirkus. Meeting and talking with all these great people was one of the best parts of the evening. Swedes must be the nicest people on earth.

While talking with them beforehand, I learned that one of the opening acts was Kristofer Åström. This also turned out to be a wonderful twist of fate, as he is another great Swedish artist I like. Being able to see him live was also totally unexpected. This photo is of his band. They made better use of the lights and sound system.

Kristofer Åström’s music is intensely personal and honest. He has a unique voice and I always think he sounds a bit like he doesn’t want to sing what his lyrics say. Even when his band is rocking out, there is still a very reserved, sleepy quality to it. He was already on stage when we arrived – imagine that, the shows here start on time – so I missed the beginning of his set. I did see six or seven songs, though. I think maybe the surprise of seeing him, and how good his set was, also contributed to my excitement and expectations for A Camp.

One nice touch that A Camp added to their set was that they had members of the opening acts join them onstage for some of their songs. Kristofer Åström played acoustic guitar on a few songs with A Camp, and the second band, The Sweptaways, which consists of a 30-piece female choir, joined them for a reworking of their latest single “Stronger Than Jesus.”

The last word on A Camp is about bassist Nathan Larson, who is an American and the husband of Nina Persson. In 1992, I went on a five-week US tour with my friends in the band Jawbox from Washington, DC. I was working the merchandise table on the tour which was with Shudder To Think. Both bands eventually signed to major labels, but at the time of this tour everyone was still on Dischord Records. This was so long ago, it seems like it was a different lifetime.

Nathan was the “new” guitarist in Shudder To Think on this tour in 1992, having replaced the original guitarist Chris Matthews. I was not a huge fan of Shudder before the tour, but I gathered enough while talking to kids at the table that Nathan had some pretty big shoes to fill. I was, however, a huge fan of Nathan’s previous band, Swiz. I still listen to their stuff. Some kids at these shows were shocked that the band would continue without Chris Matthews. I wasn’t familiar enough to know the difference, but the band grew on me quite a bit during the tour. One of their best songs is their cover of “So Into You” by Atlanta Rhythm Section. I was a fly on the wall when they put this song together before a show in a muggy VFW hall in Louisiana. Fantastic.

I remember Nathan and the other guys being very theatrical when we were on the road. I mean “theatrical” in the way that theatre students are always putting on a show. They liked to have a good time and it often seemed like it was at the cost of making bystanders uncomfortable. If you’re in a Subway restaurant in Pensacola, maybe it’s not necessary to put on a show.

I don’t know how the transition was made from there to being married to the singer of the Cardigans and playing in A Camp, but he is still putting on a big show. Now his personal show is coming at the cost of the band’s overall effectiveness. I don’t like saying this because maybe he is truly into the music so much that it produces the type of onstage behavior he exhibits, but too often he is totally going off and rocking out when it just isn’t appropriate to the material.

It was no more exemplified than in the sweet, subdued number “Golden Teeth and Silver Medals.” This song is an introspective, conversational duet with Nicolai Dunger, a Swedish singer who made an appearance when they played the song. You can see Nathan Larson in the photo here, on the right, almost comically going for it, as if to remind everyone “even though Nina is singing with that other guy, I’m still on the stage and we’re still married.” It was just a bit much, and it was distracting through a lot of the show. I’m sure this is not the first time someone has accused Nathan Larson of being aloof, immodest, or a ham. The truth is that his music for films (like Todd Solondz’s “Palindromes”) is pretty great. I just think he could tone it down a bit on stage and it would benefit the band.

Jesus, Scott, I thought A Camp was one of your favorite bands. How many complaints do you have about bands you hate?

Do I wish I had skipped the show? No, certainly not. I would have regretted coming all this way and not going. I had to go. Do I wish it had been a little different? Of course, but it’s not my band. I have to trust that they did things the way they wanted to do them. I’m glad I went to the show. I met some fun people and, all in all, I enjoyed it. I lucked into seeing Kristofer Åström and finally got to hear Nina Persson singing live, if not actually getting to really see her.

This was a long one. A lot going on upstairs tonight.