Southside 19

An appraisal by ‘our man in the mosh pit’ Nigel Milne (Chandos 68)

“Don’t delay in booking tickets for the pre-Speech Day Concert, Nigel”, advised Colin Dudgeon. “It’s BJORN AGAIN, the Abba tribute band, and the tickets are selling fast.” “Bjorn Again??!! Mamma Mia!, how can I resist that?”, I thought.

Phew, now that I’ve got that utterly predictable quip out of my system, I shall attempt to write a fair critique of the ensuing entertainment as the evening developed and, hopefully, without resorting to cheap puns!

Now, Abba have provided the soundtrack to so many people’s lives since they erupted onto the scene by winning the Eurovision Song Contest with the irresistible Waterloo in 1974, and have now garnered a whole new audience of youngsters due to the popularity of the two Mamma Mia! films, so this was likely to prove to be a sociological as well as an entertaining experience.

Deeming it prudent to fortify ourselves with some nourishment prior to the onslaught of an overdose of aural ‘Scandifloss’, we set about investigating the offerings of the varied street food dispensers distributed along one side of the South Front, in search of a suppery substance. “So, what have we got here? Do you feel like Indian or Vietnamese? Fish’n’chips or chicken? Chicken! Right, let’s go and look for Nandos!!!” (Geddit? “For Nandos?” – “Fernando”?) Oh, very well, please yourselves!”

Anyway, enough of this opportunistic quippery and let’s get to the music.

Now, what is normally the Graveyard Slot at these events was, tonight, turned on its head by the first act of the evening – Stowe’s own home-grown band, RAIN MACHINE. Post-punk thrashing (or so I thought) emanated through the airwaves until I realised that what I was hearing was a really good and contemporary rendition of The Spencer Davis Group’s I’m A Man from the mid-sixties and to which I used to listen in my study at Stowe – waves of nostalgia engulfed me!

On entering the marquee, rather than witnessing the valiant efforts of an opening band performing to an audience of approximately twelve, as in previous years, this year’s band were being appreciated by a healthy number of loyal and supportive fans.

Securing a place near to the stage, I witnessed a strident programme from a very competent and promising outfit.

Exciting stuff fuelled by driving and fluid bass runs from OLIVER SEDDON (Cobham, Upper Sixth), explosive and powerhouse drumming from SEAN CARSLAW TRICOT (Grenville, Upper Sixth), and fevered fingering fretboard finesse by guitarist THEO HAYES (Chatham, Upper Sixth), as he delivered some staccato flourishes and whose powerful vocal delivery and spirited yelling together with TALLULAH GOLDSMITH’s (Stanhope, Upper Sixth) strong and clear lead vocal provided some interesting and effective harmonies.

A six number set incorporating one self-penned number Icarus by Theo and five covers, of which the stand-out number for me was the penultimate – The White Stripes’s Seven Nation Army. Hang on, I’m getting déjà vu here – I seem to remember mentioning this very same song in my review of last year’s concert! Could this be becoming a Stowe stalwart standby? However, what struck me most about this number was Lula’s Patti Smith style vocal delivery: stripped back, raw, strident and utterly compelling.

And so, on to the main act.

Now, what can one say about a band whom the audience have come to see purely because they play everyone’s favourite songs? This had to be a sure fire winner and as a critic I felt that this may well be my Waterloo (No Nigel – stop it!) which is exactly the number with which they opened their set. And what an opener it was too. And, for the next twelve numbers, hit followed hit, mercilessly – and the audience were loving it.

Thankfully, the seating had been reduced drastically to a few short rows at either end of the marquee, whilst the rest of the floor morphed into a mass pogoing mosh pit. This really is the best format as one cannot possibly get the maximum enjoyment from such fun and joyous music with ones butt firmly entrenched and with ones hands in ones lap. You’ve got to be standing, feeling alive and getting a direct connection with the performers, otherwise you’re missing out on about one quarter of full appreciation and enjoyment.

However, three or four songs into their set I found myself in a quandary. Am I to write a review of serious musicians emulating and giving faithful renditions of adored classic hits by one of the world’s most successful bands ever, and who are keeping the torch burning for a seemingly endless oeuvre of iconic songs? And, if I should dare to say anything remotely detrimental, would I be accused of sacrilege? The fact of the matter is that regardless of how joyous the renditions of these songs were, and how rapturously each one was received by the audience, it has to be said that (and now I feel like the little boy in the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes) some of it was actually, dare I say it, errrm, not too good!

On occasions, Benny’s keyboard sounded decidedly off key as were some of Bjorn’s guitar riffs and, once or twice, Anni-Frid’s and Agnetha’s harmonies were excruciating. Then it suddenly dawned on me, here we all were standing in a marquee, on a magnificent lawn, deep in the English countryside, whilst watching four Australians wearing decidedly questionable clothing, speaking in cod Swedish accents and playing songs that, as The Headmaster quite rightly pointed out, were never cool in the first place! The karaoke element loomed large. Bjorn Again are, of course, a spoof act, who, whilst enjoying punching out such popular fayre, are actually taking the mickey, not only out of Abba but of themselves too. I began to feel less anxious at this point – and then my relief was capped by delight as, out of nowhere and totally unexpectedly, Benny and Bjorn, looking mischievous as they suddenly escaped the saccharine shackles of Swedish pop, launched themselves, quite randomly and unexpectedly, into a spirited, joyous and totally uninhibited rendition of Van Halen’s Jump. I can safely say that no one in the audience saw that coming but it was just what was needed to give credence to the whole wonderful charade. Huge fun.

Despite certain off key moments, Benny and Bjorn and their backing band are talented musicians and Anni-Frid and Agnetha are credible singers and I can honestly say that I have never seen a more appreciative and ecstatic audience at a pre-Speech Day Concert (and we have had some belters ). As for the ‘sociological’ element that I mentioned earlier, this emerged immediately after the opening bars of Waterloo in the curious visual phenomenon of all the youngsters in the audience being elbowed aside by rampant sexagenarian and septuagenarians avid in their mission to get as near to the front of the stage as possible, dancing like no one was watching – a sight definitely NOT for the squeamish! However, for sheer exuberant fun, joy and unbridled silliness that was an evening that is going to prove to be quite a challenge to follow!

Thank You For The Music to Arts At Stowe for making it all possible and for making it one helluva party!

On returning to Stowe the next day and with the invasive rhythms of Abba’s Greatest Hits coursing through our heads, we were greeted by The Headmaster, whereupon, my wife, still in full Abba mode, went and Kissed The Teacher! – (Oh, Good Grief, Nigel! Just stop it!).

Nigel Milne (Chandos 68)

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