A Cast In Steel UK tour fan review
Until the announcement that a-ha was back with the Rock in Rio festival and a new album I don’t think I’d realized that after my last Ending On A High Note show in Birmingham, I went into mourning. There really is no better way to describe the utter devastation which even prevented me from going to the Oslo concerts. It would simply have been too painful.
I even considered going to Rio to see them again, but once the European tour became official, the UK was my first choice.
You won’t even find this old-fashioned girl on Facebook, so this is my way of contributing and giving my sincere thanks to the band. First, let me tell you a little about how I became a fan. (Those not interested in my background, please skip a couple of headings down.)
My first a-ha concert in Helsinki, June 2002
Back in 2002, I was in a cabin in Lapland, studying for my math matriculation exam, while the rest of my family was off snowboarding. We didn’t have MTV at home, so for a break I turned the TV on and there happened to be a top 10 list of animated videos running. In second place (shocking it was not first!) there was an iconic video I’d never come across before, and it was love at first sight, and hearing. Once I got home and went online, it became clear to me that a-ha was still active, and their Lifelines tour was coming to Helsinki on 11 June! (If you’re interested, I did a review back then as well.) I’m not sure, but I think this might in fact have been the only time a-ha has ever played in Finland?!!?
I enticed a friend to go with me on the train from Vaasa, and standing in the front row in the intimate club setting of Nosturi, I had the time of my life. Unfortunately, I didn’t stay on after the show, which I’ve regretted ever since.
My friend in Birmingham and previous tours
In 2005, I was going to England for my university language practice, and posted on the a-ha.com forum that I’d be working at a hotel in Henley-In-Arden for the summer. I got a reply from a girl called Kate. If I’d make a dedication for this review, it would be to her, because even this recent tour would never have been possible without her. We met up at the library once I arrived in Henley, and she has been my loyal friend and partner in all things a-ha ever since.
I missed out on the Analogue tour, being a student with limited funds, but did do Birmingham with Kate on Foot Of The Mountain (where I got Morten’s autograph from about one meter away), and then Manchester and Birmingham on Ending On A High Note. Also I went to Riga before that, on 1 November (Magne and I share the same birthday!). We had some solace from Morten’s Out Of My Hands tour in Manchester (thank you Morten for coming out for a quick glance), London and Birmingham (thank you Karl Oluf for being so nice to us), and I think Brother is his best solo album so far, even if I didn’t get to do the tour this time.
The Cast In Steel UK tour
But let’s return to the nearer past. I went to Birmingham on Thursday 24 March. We had a nice evening at my friend’s house, getting in the mood watching the excellent BBC concert. The next day we took the train to Manchester. We were thrilled to see that Anneli Drecker was the support act. I must admit I didn’t quite get her songs the first time around, but liked them more and more for every time. My first guess that Tundra was sung in Sami turned out to be correct when she said so in Glasgow. Thank you Anneli for your Scandinavian folk music kind of pop. Also, Anneli has to be mentioned for her extraordinary dance moves during a-ha’s show. She looks like she’s skiing, swimming and truly enjoying herself on stage. And who wouldn’t if they got a chance to back up this fabulous band? As Lifelines was my first tour, Anneli made me feel like the good old days were back.
After what seemed like a near total rearrangement of the stage, we had an excellent view of the stage from the left tier. I wasn’t sure where the eerie intro was going at first, I thought maybe it would be Giving Up The Ghost, which they did in Russia, but it turned out the be the same as the previous night on BBC, I’ve Been Losing You directly followed by Cry Wolf. I must say Jonas Bjerre did an awesome job on the latter, with howling wolves, blood dripping claw marks, full moons, and at the very punchline the surreal wolves nodding their blue and yellow eyed heads in sync with the music! This pair of songs was an excellent start to a great set, spanning all of a-ha’s extraordinary career.
The next song was Move To Memphis, which also had stunning visuals of abandoned buildings and the like. I love this song and the fact that a-ha has returned to a more rock influenced sound, it really suits them! Especially Paul seems to enjoy himself greatly when he gets to pull off his cool guitar tricks.
The tempo then went down for Stay On These Roads, one of the ballads that always sounds just as heartbreakingly beautiful. The “little stick of dynamite” Karl Oluf got his moment to shine at the beginning of The Swing Of Things with his excellent intro. This is another favourite which I’m happy they managed to squeeze in.
The oldies were followed by the title track Cast In Steel. Now here’s the thing about a-ha: They make fantastic records, but you couldn’t even begin to appreciate their full talent before you’ve heard them live. This goes for Cast In Steel as well. It’s a soothingly timeless piece on record, but the live performance just adds that extra level and quality to it, which makes it even better.
Anneli got her moment on Crying In The Rain. In later concerts when I was down on the floor, the thunder at the beginning came at me like a physical pressure wave. Anneli’s voice is stunning and even more so when paired with Morten’s equally unique sound. Suddenly, 1+1 equals 10.
After hearing the demo of Mother Nature Goes To Heaven on Cast In Steel, I started liking this song even more. It was great to hear it live! Accompanied by strobe light animal shapes the rocky, yet melancholy sound nearly lifted the roof off.
Looking For The Whales has one of those few a-ha lyrics which never made much sense to me, but it’s still most enjoyable and again the visual effects with water like shapes and colorful kaleidoscopes were a feast.
Following this Morten went off stage for a well-deserved break, Magne picked up his acoustic guitar and came over to the centre of the stage as Paul gave us a special treat singing Velvet. I adore this song and Anneli’s voice was an outstanding match to Paul’s warm notes. Thank you Paul, you are a musical genius and you rock!
Magne was next, saying very humbly that we’d just have to bear with him, and could we help him along by shining our phones at him. At each of the concerts he inserted a small reference to the venue he was at when doing his touching version of Lifelines. Really Magne, you don’t sound like you are someone who sings in the bathroom. It was lovely! Although in Manchester, at the very beginning he got it wrong and went: “F***ing wrong lyrics!”. There we are, it’s not always that easy, is it?
Manchester was one song short of the other gigs, where Anneli got to do her hypnotically menacing interpretation of Here I Stand And Face The Rain. Girl power! And what a treat to hear this song live.
Morten reappeared on stage for Foot Of The Mountain, which had everybody dancing around to beautiful views of, well mountains.
The fans have had their say on which songs they wanted to hear from the new album, and the band clearly obliged when doing She’s Humming A Tune. This one reminds me a bit of one of my Savoy favourites, Unsound, and the low-key guitar outro makes my spine tingle.
Paul’s streak of creepy genius (where does he get the inspiration for all these morbid masterpieces???) continued with the impossibly cool Sycamore Leaves. You really can’t stand still once the groovy guitar riff gets going. And the nightmarish ending where the sound level rises and rises, it makes me go absolutely wild!
You can’t have a proper a-ha experience without a couple of good singalongs. Hunting High And Low was first out, and this one is maybe THE a-ha song for me. I never get tired of hearing it, it’s so emotional and its longing melancholy breaks my heart, but in a good way. Morten does a lovely job directing the crowd until finally bringing the song to its end. In Birmingham we either sounded so good, or he noticed he sang the wrong line the first time, “There’s no end to the lengths I’ll go to” instead of “Do you know what it means to love you”, so we actually got an extra round.
When the first notes of Scoundrel Days tick away, there’s no stopping this epic stroke of genius from spreading its invigorating despair and tearing you to pieces. I adore the demo version where this song is still attached to This Alone Is Love, and was especially pleased to hear it this time around.
a-ha were approaching the end of the set (all too soon!) and still had three songs they had to play. First out was The Sun Always Shines On TV (Kate’s favourite), it still holds its own after all these years, and the mannequins had a scary update in the visuals.
The band left the stage and returned to do an acoustic version of Under The Makeup. This was another highlight for me as I love it when they strip songs down to their raw and emotionally overwhelming core. Morten’s display of feelings, both with voice and facial expression, made this one hurt enough to bring tears to my eyes in Glasgow.
After that came the compulsory singalong of The Living Daylights, followed by Take On Me illustrated by images from the video which brought the show to a magnificent close. You can still hit that note Morten!
Throughout the show, I constantly found myself sporting a huge grin. I missed them and their music so much while they were away!
We waited after the concert for over an hour, but didn’t get to see any of the “boys” this night.
From Manchester Kate went back to Birmingham and I proceeded on my own to London. My boyfriend obliged to accompany me for the following leg of the trip.
Crying in the rain at the O2
The O2 as many of you know, is located in North Greenwich and to get there from our hotel, we had to walk along the car park. Just as we left, it started pouring down, or rather sideways, big dollops of water which no umbrella could have fought off. I was alright, but my boyfriend’s cotton trousers were soaked to the skin, and he sat stoically shivering throughout the concert. I’m so sorry for this.
Our seats were down on the floor, first row of the last block on the left hand side. We really couldn’t see much except for the screens, but I’ve read elsewhere that Morten kept making signs to adjust the sound. I know he is notorious for this (and for occasionally getting the lyrics wrong, see above). Morten, if you are reading this: I fully understand and appreciate that someone with your truly unique and magnificent voice, one of the trademarks of a-ha’s music whatever you are playing, is concerned with sounding as good as is humanly possible, and you do! I only wish you wouldn’t worry so much, because you’re outstanding! You sound even better live than on record, and this tour I believe you have outdone yourself.
The O2 is a huge venue, and it was packed to the roof. That tells you something about a-ha’s everlasting popularity.
The beginning of the set list was the same as in Manchester up to Anneli’s solo.
The order then was Sycamore Leaves, She’s Humming A Tune, Foot Of The Mountain, Hunting High And Low and Scoundrel Days. The band left the stage, came back to do The Sun Always Shines On TV, Under The Makeup and Living Daylights. Left again and did Take on Me.
We went straight back to the hotel after the show.
Glasgow in my heart
From Heathrow we caught a flight to Glasgow. It was my first time in Scotland, and I really enjoyed it. It was also good to have one night off for rest and recovery. Our hotel was right next to the SSE Hydro, and earlier on Monday I spotted the Fly by nite trucks at the left gate.
Glasgow was my best show ever, for a number of reasons. I had a VIP ticket on the second row, right between Morten and Paul (although a tall guy obstructed my view of Paul a bit). I got to see all the moves and facial expressions up front and the sound was amazing! The venue looks, as Magne pointed out, like a good place for an alien to land, and this night was indeed magic bordering on the extraterrestrial. The set list was the same as the O2 (I got a snapshot of it as one of the attendants showed it to people in the front row), but the venue felt more personal, and not just because I was up front.
A highlight of the show was the singalong on Hunting High And Low, when Morten started jumping around on bits and pieces at the very edge of the stage. At one point I half feared he would come crashing down into the audience! I got some lovely pictures of him encouraging us to sing at the top of our voices.
Believe it or not, the best was still to come. I made my way out to the gate and stood around for a bit. There was a group of ladies, one of them waving a Norwegian flag in the search of her sister. A nice attendant inside the gates tipped these ladies off to go around to the very back of the arena. To me he simply said “If you just follow those girls”, which I did.
We were about 20 people waiting by a low barrier. Far into the courtyard there was a door that looked promising. There was a lady from the front row and a guy from Germany living in London (Johannes) who had both been lucky enough to be at the BBC, a lady whose mom had knitted the beanie Paul was wearing on stage, and a few more.
We didn’t even have to wait all that long before Magne came out. He disappeared from view and we called out to him to come and say hello, which he did. He was ever so nice and signed my ticket for me. I had this funny idea about bringing some Finnish chocolate bars with me, as they are called AHAA (see, we do love you in Finland, too). Paul came out and over as well, and I managed to slip him one of the bars. He said: “Oh gifts, thank you.” signed my ticket, made his way along the line and disappeared with my felt-tip pen. A blonde at the end managed to lean out for a selfie with Paul, lucky you!
Magne had promised to come back. There was a long-haired brunette next to me who had a tattoo she wanted to show him. She was struggling to get out of her hoodie and he said: “Oh, clothes are coming off now, I have to see this.” He even took a photo of the tattoo with his phone. As he approached me again I’d managed to get another chocolate bar out for him and told him in Swedish “Happy Easter from Finland.” (I’m actually a part of the Finnish minority who speaks a variety of Swedish as their mother tongue.) I don’t think he heard me, but he took the bar, politely returned Johannes’ pen and left.
We waited for a bit longer, until suddenly someone spotted Morten. Once again we called out and I couldn’t believe my eyes when he came over with his bulky security guard. A couple of the most exhilarated ladies nearly threw themselves at him at the end of the barrier, otherwise people kept excitedly calm. The traffic cones at the end of the barrier where lifted aside. The guard said something about “We’ll just do this quickly” and we all got our turn with Morten. Johannes didn’t have a camera and entrusted me with the important task of taking his picture. My hands were shaking, but it came out okay.
It was my turn and I handed Morten the ticket and he said: “You want me to sign this?” and he did. Then I repeated my trick with the Happy Easter and the chocolate bar. “From Finland?” he replied in Norwegian, obviously surprised. Before I knew it he pulled me in for a hug and a kiss.
I think it was tattoo girl who took my picture, I owe you big time! I had to tell you to hold the camera button down for a bit before you succeeded, and Morten repeated my line of instruction. I was already stepping away to let the next person in when Morten asked me in English if I live or study here (in the UK) (I must be older than my looks then…), but I told him I came from Finland, and that I have a friend in Birmingham who couldn’t make it. He asked me further if (she) couldn’t make it at all, and I replied that only to London and Glasgow, and that I’d be in Birmingham the next day.
When I came away a couple of ladies asked me if I was in shock, which I was. We swapped emails with Johannes so I could send him the picture later. I went back to try and get some more snaps of Morten, but it was too dark. We all waved him off, and then the driver honked his horn and they were gone. But I’ll always keep that moment in my heart.
So Morten, if a-ha won’t come to Finland, I’ll follow wherever you may go. I’d been waiting fourteen years to meet the band (I saw Magne once through the bars of a large gate, Paul has never appeared before when I was around) and yet, somehow it felt like they were old friends, so natural and friendly all three of them. Thank you once again Magne, Paul and Morten for making my wildest dreams come true!
Once more in Birmingham
After just a few blinks of sleep we caught a flight back to Birmingham. One more show with Kate to go. This time we were also on the floor, but about 25 rows back. We could see okay, and the sound was yet again great, although Morten apologized, saying they were having problems with the sound. Apparently they’d been stuck in cars all day, and hadn’t had time for a sound check. (Why didn’t you fly in, poor things?) Again, there was absolutely nothing wrong with any of the show. We truly enjoyed ourselves throughout the set. Magne enticed Morten to keep talking once he’d got started, and he ended up introducing Foot Of The Mountain. Like I mentioned above, we got an extra round on Hunting High And Low. The lights went out and Morten said something like: “I know you’re there. I can hear you clapping.”
Full of daze, we tumbled out into the night and made our way to the back exit. There were some really entertaining people waiting, but we gave up shortly before twelve. If any of you got to meet them in Manchester or Birmingham, I’d sure like to hear about it.
Well back in Finland, I’m now dreaming about going to the Afterglow show, which at least a couple of days ago was still not sold out…
My sincere thanks to Kate and her husband for their “hospitali-tea”. a-ha, your music is nothing short of my soul mate. Please stay on these roads for a little while longer!
All my love,
Erica from Finland