Thursday evening, the opening concert for the annual Hell Blues Festival in towns Hell and Stjørdal, just around the corner from Trondheim Airport. The cinema in Stjørdal town centre is the same venue where Jon Lord received the Ambassador of Hell award one year ago.
in Hell on Wednesday. Before the trip, I had just received my advance
copy of Jon's new album, Beyond the Notes and had 24 hours to listen
to it, before walking into the venue to witness some of the rehearsals.
And what surprised me at the first show was how different, yet again, it all sounded with the 20-head string ensemble, consisting of members of the Trondheim Soloisten, added to the whole mixture.
Back to the main evening: 7PM on Thursday, the festival opening. An opening speech by Magne Kjerkreit, the Festival's chief director, then the Ambassador of Hell award ceremony. This year's Ambassador, Kjell Adserø, is a local, and there's no big production here like last year (where the whole award ceremony was preceded by a video projection including clips from the Deep Purple in Hell concert in 2000), and by 7:25 the preamble is over. Knut Morten Johansen - the festival's main mover and person responsible for getting Jon over to Hell in the first place - comes on stage to welcome Jon Lord & the Gemini Orchestra.
Jon Lord makes a brief speech, saying how coming to Hell - and especially last year's concert with Trondheim Soloisten - had really changed his life, and to publicly thank Hell, and especially Knut, for bringing it all together and making that change happen. (He does indeed look very well and very happy, despite the hard rehearsal schedule and the headache he had the night before.) Then the string ensemble and the band come to join him onstage...
The show begins with Sarabande, getting the audience to start tapping their feet. After this first number Jon goes up to the mic at the front of the grand piano and tells the audience, that was 'Saraband', made... when the God was away - and a big laughter breaks out from the audience. He says how it doesn't feel like a whole year but more like five minutes since he last stood on this stage to be named the Ambassador of Hell 2003, and then talks about another ex-Ambassador of Hell, Tony Ashton, and explains the background to the next piece, I'll Send You a Postcard, written in his memory. This instrumental piece, also performed at Jon's last show with Trondheim Soloisten in Bergen in May 2004, and a studio recording of which is included on the new album, consists of variations around a beautiful melody which sounds sad and happy at the same time, sentimental but at the same time so happy and uplifting, so that the listener is left with a smile at the end of the piece. Amazing - and how fitting!
The band then play De Profundis - one of the pieces written for the new album, and one of my favourites on it - and the live version is even more dynamic and exciting! It starts with a long intro with the strings, including various very recognisable and yet very subtle quotes from Deep Purple (I won't tell you exactly what and spoil your fun when you listen to the album ;-) In his introdution Jon explains this was the piece he'd written to express his experience of the sadness of leaving something precious behind and, at the same time, going into something even more precious. Yes, the piece has that incredibly positive vibe to it, and that's probably why I love it so much. And from my seat I could see Jon smiling happily while playing this piece, as well as during many other.
Jon grabs the mic again and introduces the singer for the next piece: he sings my life for me with a wonderful voice, and Miller Anderson walks onstage to sing Pictured Within. On most of the pieces, Jon is the person who conducts, ie. gives cue to, the band and the orchestra. And here he says to Miller I'll tell you when you have to sing, and Miller replies, that would be handy. (The last time, in Trondheim, Miller had got his timing wrong and started singing a few bars too early. And both Miller and Sam Brown only arrived in town a few hours before the show, allowing only time for a minimal amount of rehearsing.) So, they start playing... and Miller gets his first cue right, sings and relaxes. Jon is still conducting the whole stage, he gives Miller the second cue, but he's not looking - so Jon has to talk into the mic to tell him to sing! And the third time, Miller is looking, but he's not sure about the subtle signs Jon is giving him with his hand, he doesn't start singing until Jon desperately nods his head (go on! go on!!!!) None of this spoils the enjoyment for the audience, it just makes it even more fun!
During Pictured Within we get to witness the percussionist Mario's amazing array of small but very effective instruments - his tiny little bell, for example, on a long string, which he hits and then lets swirl around in the air while the string coils around his finger, all the while emitting this wonderful 3D sound.
Next comes The Telemann Experiment from the new album. To the background of this, Jon himself has written extensively in his liner notes to the album, so I won't say much here, except for that the experiment has produced a captivating live number. The piece, starting with a minimal intro with the percussion, guitar and piano, and slowly building up with the strings joining in, going through a complex rhythm changes, ends with a wonderful climax with a (very) loud guitar build-up and a dramatic ending by everyone in unison.
Pavane from Sarabande follows. The wonderful Spanish-style guitar, by Paul Shigihara, is accompanied by minimal piano, bass and percussion - and here, again, the sounds made by Mario's various small instruments are very effective - before the strings join in.
Jon then introduces Sam Brown, who walks onstage, takes her centre position and adjusts the mike stand. Jon sees it and says "I could do that," and Sam replies "but you're very good at playing the piano." :-) She's looking stunning in her light blue outfit, and her beautiful voice on Wait A While captivates the audience, as usual.
Then Gigue. Jon says in his introduction, it has as much to do with barock music as I have with rocket science and makes the audience laugh again. Throughout the show, his little introductions are so amusing and keeps everyone in the hall entertained even between the pieces. And tonight, Gigue is a lot more extended than the versions performed in the recent past, featuring first a guitar solo, then - yes! - Jon's Hammond solo, which lasts around four minutes and absolutely rocks the whole place!! (I'm afraid it's beyond my capabilities to describe just how it rocked - it just did!) With Jon back at the grand piano, the piece then goes into some more subtle percussion solo by Mario, and then into a powerful duo between him and the second drummer, Bert Smaak. Now, I'm not a rock drum solo fan, but these guys together are simply fantastic - adding another great peak to the whole dynamic range of the evening. Some of the strings players seem very impressed too, they are smiling as they watch the two at their duell. When they stop and the rest of the band and the ensemble start playing together again, the audience cheer loudly and clap their hands to the music for a long while.
So ends the main set of the evening, lasting roughly 1 hour 20 minutes, and Jon and the band disappear offstage. Amidst endless clapping from the audience, Jon soon comes back alone, and invites Sam to come and sing the first encore number. She introduces Evening Song, which is like sitting in your favourite room, with windows open, and listening to the summer coming in... Does that make sense? The audience all nod & answer yes!
Jon gets to the mic again and announces, ok, it's time to get you out of here, to the audience's great laughter - since this opening concert had sold out quickly, they had arranged for a second show at 9:30PM, and now it's nearly 9PM! The band members come back onstage, to perform Bouree, another great live number - it's so wonderful to watch everyone on stage enjoying what they are playing.
So... after the 100-minute set, and barely half an hour between the sets, we're back in the hall again. Knut makes an introductory speech, before Jon comes onstage alone. God, that was the longest introduction I've ever had! Knut apologises oh, sorry. No, no, that's alright. My mother didn't take that long to give birth to me... and the audience burst into laughter. He then calls the band and the strings ensemble onstage, introduces them to the audience, and says together we're called... whatever you'd like to call us. (Another big laughter from the audience.) And they start playing.
The atmosphere during the second show is very, very friendly and warm. For one, the musicians are much more relaxed now, and Jon rabbits on (his words) much more between songs. The audience are also much more attentive and responsive: half the audience for the first show, being the festival's official opening ceremony, were guests invited by the sponsors, etc., whereas the audience for the second show are mostly fans. When Jon talks about Tony Ashton, for example, there is an applause from the hall. When he introduces De Profundis, by talking about a band he had formed a long time ago, and about his decision to leave it and pursue a new direction for himself, and adding that the Latin title means something like 'Out of the Depth', or 'Out of the Deep' - well, a little joke, a laughter breaks out from the audience too.
Miller is also more relaxed, and this time he has no problem with his cues during Pictured Within. The Telemann Experiment turns out to be a great crowd-pleaser and received with a huge applause. When Sam comes onstage, Jon proposes that he'll do the introduction, and she agrees. He simply says the next piece is called the 'Wait A While'. Sam comments well, that was short!, and Jon adds that the song has also been covered by the Norwegian singer Sissel, but has problem pronouncing her surname - and a few people from the audience help him with it, prompting more general laughter.
For the encore, Jon comes onstage alone again, then invites Sam to join him - except her heel gets tangled up with her long dress, and she's stuck at the side of the stage for a few moments! She eventually manages to free herself, and Evening Song receives another big applause - people don't stop clapping even after she leaves the stage. So Jon calls her again - but where is she? One of the band members pops his head in and asks do you want us to come on now? and Jon says no, Sam - so they go and call her. She finally comes back, with her ukulele in hand, and sings her sad but beautiful song about a woman losing her child and going insane, which she'd also performed at the cathedral concert in Trondheim last year. Another applaues that seems to go on forever. Sam tells the audience Jon's doing another one, called 'Bouree', I believe, and I have nothing to do with it, so good night and turns to leave the stage - but this time her foot hits a chair, and she nearly falls over, right there on stage! Jon shakes his head and tells the audience, I've known Sam since she was 14, but whenever she's around, there's chaos everywhere. She's lovely though... to which Sam shouts from side-stage, get on with it! And so they perform the last number, Bouree, everyone playing happily - including Sam on tambourine at the side of Mario's kit.
How could I sum it all up? An evening filled with beautiful music played by great musicians, and with wonderfully happy energy? As with the new album, the music encompassed a whole range of emotions and moods, and the sheer range and the dynamics came across as a celebration of life itself. Just beautiful.
Finally, I'd like to thank Knut and other members of the Hell Blues Festival, not only for looking after me personally but also for all their good work in running this wonderful festival for everyone. I'll look forward to seeing you again next year ;-)
Please send your reviews and photos to Rasmus Heide
Back to Hell 2004
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