To be there when the lightning strikes…

Ragnar Ólafsson – Scandinavia Club, Moscow; April 8th, 2018

Last night was one of those unforgettable experiences that you know you’ll cherish for years to come and for which no words seem big enough to describe what it felt like to be there. All of this will sound like hyperbole, but what else can I say? It was one of the best nights of my life! Absolutely everything about it was wonderful from the moment I walked in to the last hug goodbye. Seeing and hearing my friend Ragnar play is always a pleasure, but this time was  special and made me cry happy tears even before it began. I felt blessed to be there, knowing I was witnessing magic in the making. Everything made sense, everything fell into place and I knew this was exactly where I needed to be. It felt very much like coming home. <3

My trip to Moscow was a relaxed four hour ride on the high speed train from Saint Petersburg. A quick ride on the subway (with lots of walking up and down stairs in-between), a short walk to my hotel and I was ready for adventure. Food first though, sticking with my Russia tradition of having bliny at least once per trip. 😉 Afterwards I relaxed for a little while and walked to the venue. It was early, but I checked if the door was open and to my surprise they let me in, offered me tea and allowed me to stay for sound check. <3 It was a small, lovely venue, decorated with items from all the Nordic countries, true to its name “Scandinavia Club”. They put a lot of attention into details so it felt very much like being somewhere in the North. 😀

Ragnar was, as he put it, blessed with two string players that day. Alexander Gumbarg on cello and Alexey Boytsow on viola. Soon after I walked in they were rehearsing ‘Ljoð í sand’ and it was so beautiful I cried. <3 This was one of the first Árstíðir songs I fell in love with and even though I have other favorites now, it is still a joy to hear, especially in a different version. 🙂 They rehearsed a few more songs and everything sounded rich and full with the cello and violin added. ‘Dozen’ got the full string treatment too and Sasha Vinogradova, the guest singer did a brilliant job. Happy to be there, I enjoyed watching them work out little details in arrangements, smiling the whole time, because I knew how lucky I was to be there. Being the fly on the wall like this is a fan dream come true. 😀 When they were done Ragnar came over for a quick hug and I told him I had a good feeling about this.

I decided then and there that I was going to film the whole show. Luckily the venue staff had a tripod I could borrow, so I set up behind the last row of chairs. It meant I was giving up my usual front row center spot for the night, but I strongly believed it was going to be worth it. Time went by quickly, chatting with Ksenia, the organizer and the venue staff. Everyone was super nice and super excited about the concert. People arrived and as soon as the doors opened the room was buzzing with chatter and curiosity of what was about to come. The evening was sold out and most people came for the lecture on Icelandic music already.

Said lecture was a great start to the evening. Ragnar invited us on a little trip through the history of Icelandic music that spanned 800 or so years and dealt with only one theme: Melancholia. We learned about traditions of singing, developed because there were no instruments, rhymes, isolation that lead to development of the fifth in music and the mania to catch up musically with the rest of the world that brought on the great variety of music we see in Iceland today. He stretched how you still find the early elements like the fifth in the music today, that this is the part that sound “vikingy” to us. I find it fascinating to learn how music developed and where it originates and hearing the story told by someone whose music I love made it even better. The lecture ended with a q&a session as the previous day. I’ve always thought of the melancholia as a Nordic thing or at least something that is similar between Icelandic and Finnish music, but now I realized that it is a different variation thereof. Should have asked about that maybe.

After a short break we got to hear Sasha and the Sirius Orchestra. They were really good, I enjoyed their set very much. They sang in English and Russian, played cello, guitar and ukulele. It was lovely music and a great fit for the concert. Ksenia sure made good choices for support bands both nights. 🙂 The venue had kept filling up and by now it was packed. I checked my camera, the battery said “full” so I just kept it where it was. The spot I had chosen was perfect to film. A setlist was placed on the stage so I checked it to decide on which songs to film in one go and where to take breaks. Getting more excited by the minute, I watched all the last minute preparations and smiled, happy for the opportunity to be there and witness what was about to come.

A woman from the venue staff announced Ragnar and he stepped on stage together with Alexander on cello. The room grew quiet as soon as they played the first note. ‘SSDD’ had been beautiful the previous day with the cello, but today it was stunning. <3 The song has transformed into something completely new and I finally understood. We learned that Alexander had spontaneously decided to join tonight’s concert, before Ragnar stepped up on a chair to play ‘Wine’. My smile grew bigger still, everything about this concert was perfect already. 🙂

He told us hat he loved meeting new people on tour to join him on his journey with his solo album by playing with him and introduce Alexey on viola. We greeted him loudly as he joined the others on stage. After we confirmed that we liked stories, he told us about Deva and her accident, saying that the song was written as a song of hope. It was absolutely brilliant, I could feel it resonate with me more than ever. I was really emotional already, could feel there were tears waiting, but right then I was so happy I could not have cried. 🙂

For ‘Dozen’ he asked Sasha Vinogradova from Sasha and the Serious Orchestra on stage and together they sang one of the most beautiful versions of the song that I have heard so far. With the strings added, this was easily the best version of the song to date. What a pleasure to be there, what a treat to see and hear such amazing musicians perform together. *sigh* Next was ‘War’, a song that has grown from something I wasn’t sure about to one of my favorites. This night’s version as beyond amazing. I was so engrossed in watching that I hardly noticed the battery on my camera going from full to empty within a minute. Damn! so I had to change it and didn’t record one of the highlights. There was no space in my head to worry about it though. The concert was just too perfect to worry about anything. All I felt was love for the music and I never wanted it to end. <3

‘Bravery’ was equally brilliant. It’s an amazing song in every variation I have heard so far: with a full band,a second guitar, a violin, a cello. Of all the impressive, powerful and awe inducing versions of the song, this one with guitar, cello and violin might have been the best one. Everything about it was spot on and by the end of it my mouth might have been hanging open in wonder. I know for sure that I pumped my fist and uttered “YES!” looking at Ksenia with a smile and saw it reflected on her face. There was magic in the air. According to Ragnar’s story the drink that inspired the song was the worst he ever had in his life, but I can’t help thinking that this song was worth a little suffering. 😉

During the lecture someone had asked what inspired the album and was promised an answer during the concert. Of course ‘Urges’ remains a breakup album, but over all the time I’ve been listening to the songs now, many of them have taken on a more universal meaning for me. The stories, too, have changed here and there, some have been dropped, new ones have been added. I loved the music and the stories when they were still raw and I love them just as much now that they are a little bit more polished or more experimental. All of that works for me and all of it worked that night. 🙂

“Now we’re at the point in the set where I’m gonna ask you to sing”. Not many people answered when he asked if we were ready, but the instructions and Alexey playing the part on the violin elicited a lot of laughter. Then, everyone tried anyway and it did work nicely too. 🙂 Watching everything from the back was actually kind of nice. Sure, I did not get any close up looks, but I could oversee the entire stage as well as people’s reactions. From time to time, Ragnar looked at me and I always smiled at him, trying to convey that everything was going great. I do believe the message got through.

‘Red Wine’ brought me close to tears and not for the first time that night I stood there with my hand over my heart, fearing it might burst. The song is very beautiful, despite the pain I can feel every time I hear it. That’s exactly what it feels like to be alone and depressed. Songs like this are a good company for sad times. <3 Then the song I had been waiting for happened: ‘Ljoð í sand’ and they absolutely nailed it. It was the first time I heard Ragnar sing Gunnar’s part. He did it perfectly and the strings were indescribably good. Even now I don’t know how to express what it felt like to witness this, what it did to me. Interestingly enough I was so concentrated on filming that I did not even process what was happening to me until long after the concert, but then and there I felt full of love and so happy I could not stop smiling.

Absolutely everything was perfect that night: The venue, the sound, the soft light and most of all the music. The men on stage were so tuned into each other that it all seemed to flow naturally, without effort. They improvised, they gave each other room and played together beautifully. The audience was respectful apart from a few talkative people at the back (shut the fuck up, will you?) and everyone listened closely. Time and time again a thought flashed through my head like a bright neon sign reading “lucky”. Yes, lucky indeed. There is only one word to describe what I felt like: blessed with wonderful music and wonderful friends. :’)

After an amazing rendition of ‘Urges’, Sasha was back on stage for ‘Petals’ and sang it just as well as she sang ‘Dozen’. I like it how Ragnar has kept this song pure and simple without adding any instruments beyond the guitar. It fits the lyrics and leaved rooms for the voices to tell the story. <3 While he tuned his guitar he told us how the first Árstíðir album was recorded with all of them in a circle around one microphone and talked about his love for cassette tapes. We had almost reached the end of the set , but when he told us it was the point where we should all say “awwwww” many people laughed, then added “awwww”. 😀 They gave us a killer version of ‘Scar’ with a great cello into and unbelievable good strings throughout. I have no words! There was no question we wanted more after this.

Since “the backstage is so small we can’t ft all three in” they just stayed on stage and went almost straight to the encore. It brought us major chords and murder ballads. ‘Needle and Thread’ was as perfect as it gets and I found myself singing along, trying to do it quietly so I wouldn’t ruin my recording. I was having such a great time and Ksenia next to me looked the same. Judging by how they clapped and cheered everyone in the audience felt it too. It was a truly special night. ‘Where the wild Roses grow’ lead to a nice sing along in the end after people overcame their initial shyness. Finally it was time to unplug the guitar and walk around the room a little for ‘Sleep now’. It is such a perfect last song. I took a deep breath and just listened, hoping it would last a long time. Halfway into it someone started clapping along and others joined in so Ragnar had to raise his voice, but it worked out just fine. I might have even closed my eyes for a while, lost in the music. When it was over, the clapping would not stop and just for a moment I thought we might get one more song, but this was it. What a great show!

Afterwards I let the first flood of people go and get autographs before giving Ragnar a long post gig hug. We both felt it had been a special night and I told him it was certainly one of the top three concerts I had seen him play. It may even have been the best one so far. I stuck around for a long time, even after everyone else left and nobody kicked me out. We hung out and chatted, sharing stories, having a few drinks and reviewing the gig. I had no criticism whatsoever, it was as good as it gets. 😀

Eventually, Alexander and Alexey had to leave and the venue staff wanted to clean up the place and lock the doors so it was time to pack up. Ksenia’s and Ragnar’s taxi arrived so I walked them to the car and we said goodbye with a final hug or a few and I thanked them for having me. On the way back to my hotel I could not stop smiling and I felt all the emotions of the night come back to me. When I entered my room I was wide awake, with a gazillion thoughts running around my head and too many emotions in my heart to contain. The moment I sat down to rest the tears started flowing and it hit me just how special this night and the whole weekend had been. I felt deeply grateful to have been there, proud of my friend and most of all happy. I was alive, my soul was at peace. On nights like this it all makes sense, perfect sense. Thank you dear, I love you.

pictures of this concert

Setlist

SSDD
Wine
Deva
Dozen
War
Bravery
Relations
Red Wine
Ljoð í sand
Urges
Petals
Scar

Needle and Thread
Where the wild Roses grow
Sleep now

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Video shoot, cello and a lecture on Icelandic music

Ragnar Ólafsson – The Place, Sankt Petersburg; April 7th, 2018

Going back to Russia for a concert had been high on my list of things to do this year so seeing Ragnar play there was the perfect opportunity. It was beautiful on many levels, with a good support act, a co musician on cello and the additional treat of hearing Ragnar give a lecture on Icelandic music. All of this together made an amazing evening that even included drinks among friends after. Totally worth the trip! 😀

I was in the middle of planning this spring’s Poets of the Fall tour when Ragnar announced two concerts in Russia in April. So far, only good things have happened in Russia and I saw some of the best concerts of my life there so I saw if something could be arranged. I only wanted to do the second one so I could attend both Poets gigs that weekend, but soon learned that it is impossible to attend midnight gig in Kuopio on Saturday night and be in Moscow in time for a 5 pm concert on Sunday afternoon. Thus, I decided to see both of Ragnar’s gigs, arranged everything and therefore found myself on a train to Saint Petersburg on Saturday.

Everything went smoothly until I got to my usual hotel and nobody answered the door. After 30 minutes of trying and with the help of a nice Russian couple even calling them to no avail, I realized I might need to find a new place to stay for the night. Problem was I had no wifi at that point and not much time left before I needed to be halfway across town for the concert. Getting there was most important to me then, I could figure out everything else later. With the help of nice people I found the right subway station and the venue, walked in and got to hear soundcheck. Nice! Talked to Ragnar briefly and learned two things: a) they were about to film a video and b) there was wifi. Before I could process the fact that I just might be lucky enough to attend a video shoot, the wifi info was more important. I need not have worried, it took all of five minutes to find and book a new hotel.

That taken care of I was free to take in my surroundings, had time to change out of my sweaty clothes and was actually allowed to stay for the video shoot provided I was quiet. Would have loved to take pictures, but the music is much too delicate for the sound my camera makes, so I only shot a few when hey were done. They did three takes and it was fascinating to watch. They filmed with six cameras I think, from all angles, some stationary, some hand held. The best part though: Ragnar was not playing alone. he had help from the very talented Alexander on cello. It sounded absolutely amazing. When they were done I told them how beautiful I thought it was. <3 What a treat. That alone made the trip worthwhile. 🙂

Soundcheck wasn’t over though, there were still rehearsals with Olya Bravina, the night’s guest singer for the duets. She did a lovely job on first try. Finally it was time to relax and grab some food while waiting for the lecture to start. Somewhere in the midst of all this I met Ksenia, who had organized the concert with her agency and took care that everything went smoothly. We were already about an hour behind schedule, but that didn’t matter at all. 😀 Quite a few people had arrived already and now they all came In and sat down. There were lots of comfy cushions on the floor and I’d already left my proverbial towel (i.e. jacket) on one at the front row center. 😀

I can’t remember what time Ragnar’s lecture started. What I do remember is that I had everything prepared to film it – additional camera, mini tripod and all, but stupidly had no checked my SD card and there was not enough space so it stopped after a few seconds. Talk about feeling stupid. Thus I ended up filming the whole thing with the DSLR I held in my hand until the battery died. *laughs* Anyway, the lecture was quite entertaining and I learned a few things too. He had chosen to pick one aspect of Icelandic music, melancholia, and historically explained how that came about. We learned how the lack of instruments and the isolation lead to a development of music without theory and how the Icelandic fifth and other elements can still be found in Icelandic music today. I enjoyed it very much and the q & a after was quite funny, especially because people mostly didn’t ask about music. So you hate cats, ey? I knew you were a dog person, but a cat hater? We might have to reconsider this friendship. 😉 😛

Break time, drinks and listening to the pretty damn good Комната105. They rocked the house! I enjoyed their set very much, even though I had no idea what they were singing. It was done well and they all knew how to play too. Standing in the back listening I exchanged a few words with Ragnar who also liked them. They were a good choice for a support act.

We settled down to hear the concert we had come to see and it was off to a perfect start with ‘SSDD’ . It still makes me smile to write words like that considering how long it took me to like this song. With Alexander Gumbarg on cello it was perfect though. I was in awe of his playing, especially considering they had only met that day and didn’t have much time to rehearse. Are all cello players geniuses? It almost seems to be part of the job description, considering how amazing some of them are. Either way, Alexander certainly is hugely talented and I immediately loved his additions to the songs.

“A good audience is one that listens”. Thus we were treated to the unplugged version of ‘Wine’. It’s nice, how some songs are still stripped down and just played on guitar like they were on the first tour last year, while others have evolved far beyond that. When the song was over I heard someone say “It’s amazing!” I agreed. 🙂 He told us that every song has a story that inspired the music, but that the most important element in the music is silence, the point where the song stops and starts again.

Ragnar told us about listening to the demo for ‘Dozen’ and realizing he’d written a duet without knowing it so Olya joined him on stage to sing with him and she did it beautifully. It still amazes me how the duets sound different every night, but every interpretation is good. Here, too, the cello fit in nicely. We learned how the first, heavy rock arrangement for ‘War’ didn’t really fit the album, so he recorded it with a ukulele and with the different instruments added on tour it keeps changing. He described it as being about the war inside your head.

I had been curious about ‘Bravery’. It is still one of my favorite songs and it seems to work with any new instrument added so I was really looking forward to how the cello would work out. It fit perfectly! <3 Before it started though, during the story that goes with it, I kept hearing David’s comments in my head and smiled, thinking back on the banter between the guys on the previous tour.

For ‘Relations’ Ragnar moved over to the piano. Alexander played some cool stuff on the cello that made me think of Guillaume playing the theme from ‘Jaws’. Only a few people were excited about him asking us to sing, but it worked. I refrained, because I was filming the song. 😉 It made me happy that he announced ‘Red Wine’ next. Depressing as it is, I love the song. Not only the lyrics, but especially the music and the way it is sung perfectly convey what it feels like to have lost someone you loved – the loneliness and the despair is all there.

“You know how it is, you always find the right words to say when it’s too late.” was the introduction to a moving delivery of ‘Urges’. I really felt it that night. 🙂 It fit that he asked who saw the lecture right after and stated how melancholy in Icelandic music comes naturally. Olya joined him again for ‘Petals’ and her singing was lovely. There are so many amazing singers out there and somehow they always end up on stage during Ragnar’s concerts. <3

A brilliant version of ‘Scar’ brought the set to an end. It’s official, cello does it for me any day. I loved the power of that song, how it just became stronger and stronger towards the end. 😀 The rest of the audience agreed with me and loudly demanded more. Someone wanted to hear ‘Sleep now’ and when he asked how many songs we had left, two or three songs and we answered “Four!”

“Musicians are flawed people. Instead of doing things we just write songs about them.” 😉 That may be true, but if it leads to songs like ‘Needle and Thread’ I certainly don’t mind. I’ve loved it from the first time I’ve heard it and it’s quickly shaping up to become one of my all time favorites! Of course he could not let us go without the murder ballads, ‘Where the wild Roses grow’ to get us in the mood and  finally ‘Sleep now’ where Ragnar stepped off the stage and walked around, greeting us. It is a good song to end the show with, but of course we would not have minded hearing a few more. 😉

After the gig, many people came to say hello, get pictures and get albums signed. A quick hug, saying how wonderful it had been and then I waited for the coast to clear. L. and her mom were there and a few other familiar looking people. We ended up with Ragnar at the bar, telling stories and having shots, a local Saint Petersburg one. I learned how the Russian Árstíðir fan club had started. 😀 It was the perfect end to the night and after saying goodbye, I even got a lift from N. who was going my general directly. With a happy sigh I went to my hotel, already looking forward to the next day.

pictures of this concert

Setlist

SSDD
Wine
Deva
Dozen
War
Bravery
Relations
Red Wine
Urges
Petals
Scar

Needle and Thread
Where the wild Roses grow
Sleep now

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