a-ha | 05.13.10

Seeing Morten hold that 21-second note on “Summer Goes On”—the longest note held on any record in history—is something akin to a religious experience.

 

 

 
 
Riviera Theatre, Chicago
We were on the floor, herd-style, waiting for the show to start, when I overheard the guy behind me say to his date: “I can’t believe we’re here. We’re going to remember this for the rest of our lives.”
Humorous, yes, but also true. This was to be a-ha’s last time in the States, 2010 being their year of farewell concerts worldwide. Prior to this show, it had been five years since the Norwegians graced our shores, and then with only one show in New York City (which sold out in 52 minutes). Those who considered a-ha a one-hit wonder were far from correct; over its career, the band released nine studio albums with sales in excess of 35 million, 70 million units including singles; in other words, nothing short of epic. Their career spanned the better part of 25 years and countries all around the globe (with a break or two in between). In fact, their 1992 Rio de Janeiro concert in 1992 earned a Guinness World Record for the largest-ever audience attendance at a paid concert: 196,000 people.
Even though a-ha didn’t make it back to the states after the ’86 tour until the 2005 gig (the concert sold out in 52 minutes!), and never reached the supreme heights of their debut album in the U.S. market, the trio remained a massively popular act worldwide: 9 studio albums with sales in excess of 35 million, 70 million units including singles. a-ha is one of the biggest-selling Norwegian act of all time, with 15 top ten singles in the U.K. alone and multiple gigantic world tours—including the legendary show at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, which earned a Guinness World Record for the largest-ever audience attendance at a paid concert: 196,000 people.
The show began with images on a huge screen and a medley of a-ha songs…performed by a symphony. It was somehow heartbreakingly beautiful; their songs were, it seemed, that epic, that universal. And then the three—Morten Harket, Paul Savoy and Magne Furuholmen—took the stage and it was on. From the outset, it was obvious a-ha had put a lot of thought into their show. For one, the screen displayed synchronized images throughout much of the set. (The artistic films were great; the soaring landscape ones not so much.) And then there was the fact that a-ha began their set with their most recent material, generally showcasing two songs per album (one the title track, if applicable) and worked their way back.
In addition to building anticipation for the albums and the songs on which most of us had cut our a-ha teeth, this layout was a clear example of how steady the band has stayed all these years; the new songs easily held up to the older material. If anyone in that audience had any doubt, a-ha was not just one of Norway’s best bands but, it should be said, the world’s. (And, truly, has there ever been a more angelic voice in pop music?)
The first thing we noticed was that the three were dressed to the nines, in suits and vests. The second: with the exception of Paul (who looks like a diminutive Paul McCartney when he began to show his age; sorry, Paul), was that there was no way these guys had been making music 25 years; they didn’t look a day over 30, 35 tops. Seriously. Morten must have sold his soul to the devil, and Mags is, well, dashing. Together, the two delivered some haunting harmonic refrains on “Forever Not Yours.”
“Minor Earth, Major Sky” found the two M’s sharing a microphone, while on “Move to Memphis” the pair strapped on banjos and jammed with Paul. “Summer Moved On” is always beautiful—especially the note that Morten holds for 21 seconds (yes, another world record! the longest note held on any record in history); seeing him hold that note is something akin to a religious experience. With his eyes closed and posture reverent, Morten seemed downright angelic as he delivered “Stay on These Roads,” from one of my favorite albums of the same name. Funny, but I never noticed how small a role the guitar played in this song.
Deliciously, once a-ha dipped into their sophomore release Scoundrel Days, they stayed there a while. Though I love all their albums (honestly; there is no clunker), something about this one continues to captivate me the same as when I first heard it in 1986. The songs haven’t aged; nothing about this album sounds dated. And the lyrics…brilliant. a-ha were the real deal. The yelp to kick off the title track? It made all the waiting worthwhile.
The three sent their band offstage to deliver acoustic renditions of a couple songs: “And You Tell Me” and “Early Morning.” The first was nearly a capella; a precisely struck xylophone made it even more beautiful. Their performance of “We’re Looking for the Whales” played up the rhythm section before coming together in a crazy, mash-up sort of ending. The Scoundrel Days pair “I’ve Been Losing You” and “Cry Wolf” were treats.
On the whole, the songs were performed pretty much as they’d been recorded. Rather than this being a detriment, though, it again only solidified the genius of this band. The songs were intricate, delicate, exact; the band would give nothing less.
Of course the band saved the early hits for encores, those from their 1985 debut Hunting High and Low: “The Sun Always Shines on TV,” “Take on Me” and the title track. Before what was to be the first of two encores, the oversized screen became a slideshow of the band across its 25-year history: photos, images, album covers, magazine covers, articles in all languages. If the reach and importance of a-ha hadn’t been firmly established, now it was.
Unbeknownst to him, toward the end of the show, Morten circled back to my pre-show eavesdropping in “The Swing of Things,” singing, “I know that I’ll need this for the rest of my life.” For those of us who’d followed the band for a quarter of a decade, who’d made whatever trip necessary to say thank you and farewell to one of the world’s biggest and best pop groups, we needed it, too. | Laura Hamlett
 
Set list:
1. Foot of the Mountain
2. The Bandstand
3. Analogue
4. Forever Not Yours
5. Minor Earth Major Sky
6. Summer Moved On
7. Move to Memphis
8. The Blood That Moves the Body
9. Stay on These Roads
10. The Living Daylights
11. Scoundrel Days
12. The Swing of Things
13. And You Tell Me
14. Early Morning
15. We’re Looking for the Whales
16. Manhattan Skyline
17. I’ve Been Losing You
18. Cry Wolf
Encore 1:
19. Hunting High and Low
20. The Sun Always Shines on TV
Encore 2:
21. Take On Me
About Laura Hamlett 467 Articles
Laura Hamlett is the Managing Editor of PLAYBACK:stl. In a past life, she was also a music publicist and band manager. Besides music, books, and other forms of popular culture, she's a fan of the psychology behind true crime and violent criminals. Ask her about mass murder...if you dare.

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