a-ha: 14 February 2018, London
30 years ago, my gran gave me my first pop cassette, Stay On These Roads by a-ha. Although the tape has long since worn out, on Valentine’s night the band showed that, despite several break ups and make ups over the intervening years, they are very much alive and well.
Beginning with a newish song (so-so This Is Our Home), the band, accompanied by rhythm and string sections, essentially recreated recent album Summer Solstice, recorded in Norway last summer as part of the MTV Unplugged series. While the set list was unchanged from last year, bar the occasional nod to shuffle mode, the band did seem to be enjoying each other’s company again and the chance to plunder through their back catalogue a little differently to the last time they were at the o2.
Although far from sold out (the venue had pulled black draping over vast sections in the upper tier), this togetherness probably suited the crowd as Morten Harket is not a showman, being highly unlikely to shout a “Hellloooooo London!” to the folks in row zz. Instead, Morten preferred to perch on a stool and let his singing voice do the talking, leaving the occasional quip to the band’s keyboard player Mags Furuholmen.
One such quip was referring to musician and arranger Lars Horntveth as a man who plays any instrument ending in phone – saxophone, vibraphone…iPhone. Just as the set list has been consistent on this tour, one does wonder how many times that joke has had an airing. Still, it got a laugh, so why drop it?!
The strings/vocal trio plus backing band with occasional lap steel guitar, (lap steel – YES!) brought a wonderful richness to songs such as Stay On These Roads and Over The Treetops (complete with Eleanor Rigby style ending). It was nice to hear Memorial Beach, which feels like a deep cut despite being the title track to their 1993 release. Shame though that songs that would have worked really well in this setting – Cosy Prisons and Crying In The Rain – didn’t make it on to the set list.
Some tunes felt near identical to their ‘electric’ cousins. This worked well on the likes of This Alone Is Love, but meant Analogue and Manhattan Skyline lacked their usual punch. The Living Daylights suffered from a strangely flat piano solo from Mags, rather than having the instrumental portion handled by the strings. And it was surprising that despite numerous guitar changes, principal songwriter Pål Waaktaar took at most one solo, generally preferring to sit on a low stool gently strumming his guitar, whilst hiding under his hat.
Beginning the inevitable encore with a relatively unknown (and not very good) pre a-ha track was a bizarre move, but an earlier guest appearance by Echo Bunnyman Ian McCulloch and grand finale of a wonderfully stripped down version of Take On Me, meant the audience went home happy, although perhaps yearning for a few synths at the next gig.
Highlight of the night: Morten Harket grinning like a Cheshire cat during his duet with Ian McCulloch.
Gripe of the night: Non-stop nattering from the row behind me.