Thursday, May 13th, 2010
Ending On A High Note
a-ha and Ray Materick at Massey Hall in Toronto
Frank YangI’ve taken a bit of ribbing in the last while about not only attending Monday night’s a-ha show at Massey Hall, but for being excited about it. Which is sort of fair, I suppose, as the Norwegian trio largely fell off the North American radar around 1987, despite not only maintaining but growing a massive fanbase worldwide over the past two decades plus. But those who assumed the band had been creatively fallow since Hunting High And Low – or even no longer in existence – not only missed out on 25 years or so of great pop music, but by ignoring the Toronto stop on the band’s farewell tour, an amazing show as well.
I can’t pretend that I’ve kept up with a-ha in all that time. Their first three albums or so were staples of my youth, thanks to my older brother’s music collection, but circa 1990’s East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon, grunge/alternative broke out and there was little room in this 15-year old’s world for sophisticated Euro-pop. Even so, I’ve always had a soft spot for them, gave new singles a listen whenever they crossed my path and taken notice if they made any sort of news – as they did when they announced last Fall that they would split up after a final world tour that would cover most of 2010. And when Toronto was listed as one of the four North American cities and seven shows on this continent in total to host one of these farewell shows, I decided I kind of had to be there. Which brings us to Monday.
If you’ve ever wondered what 24 years of pent-up demand felt like – that’s how long it had been since a-ha’s last and only visit to Toronto – then Massey, where that show also happened, was the place to be. I would imagine that anyone who only knew them as “that band with that song and that video” was elsewhere on this evening (or else had too much disposable income) because while the theatre wasn’t quite sold out – I wager there were a couple hundred of the less choice seats vacant – but the buzz of anticipation from the other couple thousand plus in attendance more than made up for the empty seats.
When the lights dimmed for the start of the show, anticipation turned into confusion as the opener was introduced as Hamilton folksinger Ray Materick, who had a few radio hits back in the ’70s. His appearance was not without context, as this piece in eye explains, but it was an odd pairing to say the least. While Materick delivered a short set of his material new and old, the audience managed to stay on the right side of polite while not really paying much attention. Which is probably all that could have been expected.
“Polite” wouldn’t be the word to describe the atmosphere when the house lights dimmed a second time and the giant video screen that served as backdrop to the otherwise bare-bones stage setup began playing a montage of sweeping abstract visuals – “madness” might be more accurate. And “madness squared” for when the visuals resolved into a giant “2010” and the band strode onto a Toronto stage for the first time in almost a quarter century. Not that you could necessarily tell that much time had elapsed by looking at them – though all around 50 years of age, they all looked remarkably well-kept and youthful. But they weren’t here just to act as testaments to the benefits of nordic living; they were here to put on a show.
And with the title track of their latest (last) album Foot Of The Mountain, they began a backwards journey through their discography that was clearly designed to remind to deliver maximum hit value while serving to remind that they were writing solid songs to the very end. It didn’t take them even an hour to blow through the ’00s and ’90s, highlighted by “Summer Moved On” from 2000’s Minor Earth Major Sky wherein Morten Harkett proved he had lost not iota of range or power from his voice over the years, hitting and holding the high notes for an absurdly long time. The sweeping “Stay On These Roads” and “The Living Daylights”, backed by Bond-ian visuals, marked the start of the golden age portion of their set and immediately shifted gears for a two-song, acoustic break of “And You Tell Me” and “Early Morning”. They spent the remainder of the main set with their first two records, Scoundrel Days and Hunting High & Low, including stellar readings of “Manhattan Skyline” and “I’ve Been Losing You”. When they walked off stage following “Cry Wolf”, no one believed for a millisecond they weren’t coming back, and following an extended video montage of stills and photos from the band’s earliest days, they returned for a soaring “The Sun Always Shines On TV” and “Hunting High & Low”, and after one final encore, it was “Take On Me” and the end.
From start to finish, the trio – backed by a drummer and keyboardist/bassist – put on a nearly perfect performance, striking the right balance of slickness and honesty, not unlike their music. Though this was a farewell tour, there was no sense of sadness or regret to be found – more than anything, the prevailing emotion was pride in a body of work assembled over a career any artist should be envious of and a sincere appreciation for the fans who stood steadfast by them, even though they were more or less neglected since the start of the ’90s. If North America had some appreciation for adult contemporary-ish pop music that wasn’t r&b-based or just pap, a-ha might well have been the stars here that they were in the rest of the world. But as it was, we just got this one final opportunity to say hello and goodbye and were grateful for it.
The Toronto Sun also has a review of the show and The National Post Chicago Sun-Times have interviews with guitarist Paul Waaktaar-Savoy. a-ha’s first two albums will be reissued in double-CD expanded form on June 28 by Rhino.
Photos: a-ha, Ray Materick @ Massey Hall – May 10, 2010
Video: a-ha – “Shadowside”
Video: a-ha – “Nothing Is Keeping You Here”
Video: a-ha – “Foot Of The Mountain”
Video: a-ha – “Cosy Prisons”
Video: a-ha – “Analogue”
Video: a-ha – “Celice”
Video: a-ha – “Lifelines”
Video: a-ha – “Forever Not Yours”
Video: a-ha – “I Wish I Cared”
Video: a-ha – “Velvet”
Video: a-ha – “Minor Earth Major Sky”
Video: a-ha – “Summer Moved On”
Video: a-ha – “Shapes That Go Together”
Video: a-ha – “Angel”
Video: a-ha – “Dark Is The Night”
Video: a-ha – “Move To Memphis”
Video: a-ha – “There’s Never A Forever Thing”
Video: a-ha – “I Call Your Name”
Video: a-ha – “Crying In The Rain”
Video: a-ha – “You Are The One”
Video: a-ha – “Touchy!”
Video: a-ha – “The Blood That Moves The Body”
Video: a-ha – “Stay On These Roads”
Video: a-ha – “The Living Daylights”
Video: a-ha – “Manhattan Skyline”
Video: a-ha – “Cry Wolf”
Video: a-ha – “I’ve Been Losing You”
Video: a-ha – “Hunting High & Low”
Video: a-ha – “Train Of Thought”
Video: a-ha – “The Sun Always Shines On TV”
Video: a-ha – “Take On Me”
Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit will release their debut full-length The Big Black & The Blue on May 25. Hear songs from it when they play the Rivoli on June 11. And also by clicking below. That works too.
M.I.A. has named her new album /\/\/\Y/\. Yeah, someone needs to talk to her handlers. It’s out July 13.
Video: The Big Pink – “Tonight”
Keane are hoping their fanbase has increased about five fold since the last time they were here as they’re booked into the Molson Amphitheatre on July 30. They just released a new album entitled Night Train.
Video: Keane – “Clear Skies”
The August 7 show at the Horseshoe with Maps & Atlases just got that much buzzier with the addition of mysteriously shimmering Motown-y New York duo Cults. Their debut 7″ is available to download for free at their website. Listen and find out what all the cool kids are talking about for the next 3 seconds.
MP3: Cults – “Go Outside”
Logistical issues have snookered the August 8 Empire Of The Sun show at the Sound Academy. They apologize and hope to make it back, but not to the point of offering anything resembling a window when that might happen. So don’t expect it to happen.