Värttinä at the Perelman Theater, Philadelphia PA, January 18 2007

It's been nearly twelve years since the album Aitara, by the Finnish band Värttinä, played over the speakers between the sets of a show at Central Park Summerstage I was attending. All sorts of ramifications have followed. Regrettably, their current tour of the United States includes no public shows in New York City, just a stop at the Finnish Embassy and a performance to be filmed for Link TV. The closest venue where I could see them perform, therefore, was the Perelman Theater inside the Kimmel Center in downtown Philadelphia, on a weeknight no less. That would mean leaving work in Manhattan at 4 to get to the show by 7:30, followed by a 10:30 Amtrak back to New York and another train out to Ronkonkoma, getting me home around 2 in the morning. Could it possibly be worth the aggravation and expense? In a word, yes.

The Perelman Theater is very nicely designed, both visually and acoustically. Whoever was responsible for publicizing the show really didn't reach the right audience, however, as the place was maybe a third full. A large number of seats in front of mine were empty, even though tickets for them had to have been sold. I'm guessing the theater sells season passes, but most of the shows there are classical, and the classical audience largely stayed home for this one. Oh well, there was more elbow room for the handful of die-hard fans who made up for their lack of numbers with their enthusiasm, and I had no difficulty abandoning my original seat in row L for one right up front.

Any description of a Värttinä performance has to start with the three women up front, singers Mari Kaasinen, Susan Aho, and Johanna Virtanen. The trio not only sing the songs, but generally act them out as well and do some sort of choreographed routine to each song. The sex appeal is obvious, but the singers succeed on many deeper levels than that too. Most of their singing style is rooted in the musical traditions of Karelia, the region in eastern Finland and northwest Russia which produced the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic poem. Their affinity for rapid-fire, highly alliterative singing in harmonies that generally emphasize seconds instead of the more conventional thirds and fifths started on the earliest Värttinä recordings and continues on their most recent release Miero, and was very evident in their performance last night. The women successfully convey the humor in much of their lyrics to the audience, despite the obvious language barrier. They are also not afraid to sing songs reflecting the dark, sinister side of Finnish folklore, and to make the vocals dissonant and ugly when a song calls for that. For this show at least, Susan Aho seemed to be the sparkplug for both the rest of the band and the audience, bringing a particularly infectious amount of energy and enthusiasm to he singing and movement across the stage. The band's six instrument players likewise are a potent force in their own right. Not only do they continue to effortlessly handle a variety of speeds, tempos, and rhythms, but they just keep getting tighter as a unit, and the sound they create just roars off the stage.

As usual, there were plenty of highlights. The show opened with "Itkin," the first song of Värttinä's 2000 CD Ilmatar. Dark and eerie, this song reflects the primal, folkloric influences in the band's sound. The combination of complex Balkan-inspired rhythms with urgent vocals shows up on every Värttinä album at least once, and "Tauti" (off 2003's iki) and "Lumotar" (off Miero) got the audience going early in the set. The joyous dance number Yötulet, my favorite of many stand-out tracks on Aitara, got the best live treatment from the band that I've heard to date. "Äijö," a song off Ilmatar about a hermit driven mad by a snake bite who casts a spell to purge the venom from his system, is very popular among the band's fans. While it impressed the producers of the theatrical version of The Lord Of The Rings so much that they hired Värttinä to compose some of the music for the play, "Äijö" is not for the squeamish, and I got the sense from the relatively tentative audience response that a few people didn't really know what to make of it. Personally, I thought Värttinä captured the demented frenzy of the song just right, especially Johanna Virtanen's insidious laughter during the spell-casting portion of the song. "Riena," another frantic and sometimes dissonant number, leads off Miero but closed the main part of the set. Complete with a blood-curdling shriek from Aho that blew away the intro on the recorded version, it proved that the newer material stands up well to the older material.

Given that I'd been to a concert in Manhattan on Wednesday night (I hope to get a review of that up soon) and had to make a series of train connections on my way to Philadelphia and back, I really had no time to get psyched up for this show. It had also been more than three years since I'd seen Värttinä, so I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. And yet, I wound up sitting up front with the same big childish grin on my face that I always get at their shows. Some things never change, I guess. I hadn't really forgotten that I consider Värttinä to be the best band currently gracing the planet, or why I feel that way, but the reminder was greatly appreciated.
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Anonymous said...

From: Scott Tisdel
Subject: Varttina!!

Greetings Scott!!

You don't know me, but I am a fellow Varttina fan that heard their recent tour in Minneapolis MN. I actually wrote my own review and was going to post it on the Varttina website forum, but have been unable to register (I'm not very computer literate!). Since I saw your review of the Philadelphia show, I thought you might be willing to post it on the Varttina forum under your user name. If not, that's fine-- Hopefully you will at least enjoy reading it!

My review follows-- Thanks in advance!!

Scott Tisdel
Milwaukee, WI

P.S. Nice review (& pic) on your blog!


Wow! What an awesome show!

First of of all, I want to thank the members of Värttinä and their management for this abbreviated U.S. tour. It is not easy (nor cheap) to schlepp nine musicians and all their gear across the Atlantic, and your efforts are much appreciated. I felt very fortunate to be able to attend the Minneapolis show, even though I had to drive 370 miles from Milwaukee, WI! (Värttinä also played Chicago the night before, which is closer, but I couldn't make that date.) I hope the members of Värttinä were happy with what they saw in Minneapolis-- A sold-out house (by my estimate, around 800), who obviously loved what they heard, and responded with great enthusiasm. Perhaps this will encourage Värttinä to plan more extensive U.S. tours in the future, perhaps to support their Lord of the Rings CD, which hopefully is in the works.

As for the actual show, I had a few minor quibbles, so I'll get those out of the way first. I was pleased to see 8 of the nine 9 current members of Värttinä on this tour. The missing member however, drummer Jaska Lukkarinen, is extremely important to the group. By far the best drummer that Värttinä has had, Lukkarinen manages to tread a fine line, providing an strong, propulsive beat, but light enough to give "space" to the acoustic instruments. His replacement was quite good (his name was announced, but I didn't catch it), but he tended towards a heavier, straight rock beat for too many of the songs. There was also a 10 minute drum solo, which was OK, but I find drum solos tedious under almost any circumstances. It did give the other members a break in the 1 hr & 45 min show, but I would have rather heard a solo guitar, accordion, or violin solo. I hope that Lukkarinen has not left the group-- His musicianship and inventiveness would be sorely missed.

Was also a bit disappointed that both Antto Varilo (guitar) and Hannu Rantanen (bass), chose not to play acoustic instruments, but electronic "imitations" of acoustic instruments. I can certainly understand this, given the long trip (and the brutality of baggage handlers!) but the sound suffered. Rantanen's bass, in particular, was boomy and indistinct.

But, as I said, these are minor quibbles in a truly wonderful show. The set list was as follows:

1) Itkin (Ilmatar)
2) Tauti (Iki)
3) Linnunmieli (Ilmatar)
4) Lumotar (Miero)
5) Eerama (Miero)
6) Maialeena (Miero)
7) Pajatus
8) Aijo (Ilmatar)

9) Drum solo
10) Vihi (Iki) (Instrumental)
11) Hoptsoi (Seleniko) (Instr.)

12) Miero (Miero)
13) Mierontie (Miero)
14) Maaria (Miero)
15) Synti (Miero)
15) Laulutytto (Vihma)
16) Riena (Miero)

17) Nahkaruoska (Iki)
18) Seelinnikoi (Seleniko)

The fact that Värttinä, in their 24th year, can still put on a great show almost entirely of new material, rather than recycled past glories, says a lot about the group. And why not?-- I believe that Miero, from 2006, is their strongest album yet. (One can read my lengthy review of Miero on Amazon.com.) Also interesting was the inclusion of one song not from any album, Pajatus. This is a fantastic song, and its abscence from the albums is puzzling. (It does, however, appear on the "Archive Live" DVD, in a concert from 2003.)

So naturally, with a program like this, I was in heaven! Värttinä is every bit as impressive live. The three "front-women" (Susan Aho, Mari Kaasinen, Joanna Virtanen) were charming, beautiful, energetic, and yes, sexy, often "acting out" the lyrics so that the meaning was clear even to an English-speaking audience. And boy, can they sing!! They were just as polished and gorgeous as they are on their studio albums. The band, too, is fantastic, with wonderful moments from everyone (I especially love Janne Lappalainen's soprano sax!). Slight differences in the songs from the studio versions were interesting: An effective "segue" between Itkin and Tauti, a new longer ending to Eerama, an abbreviated "curse section" of Aijo, and slightly different tempos occasionally (especially the faster tempo of Linnunmieli, a big improvement). It was also nice to see a couple of questions I had about Miero answered: The male singer in the song Miero, for instance, is fiddler Lassi Logren (beautiful-- I hope we hear him again), and the strange, staccato bass notes at the beginning of Synti is actually the accordion (courtesy of Markku Lepisto). The songs from Miero are full of such original touches, which of course is why they are so wonderful.

After the show, the entire band mingled with the crowd and signed CDs (the line to buy them was long!). The three women signed my copy of "Archive Live", and even graciously agreed to have my daughter take their picture. (You can find many more pictures of this concert at BritishRockisAlwaysTop.Blogspot.com). They were just as charming away from the footlights, especially considering that this was their third concert in 24 hours, with an arduous day of travel in between. All in all, a truly memorable concert experience, and one can only hope that this will not be Värttinä's last visit to the states.

Thank you Värttinä!!
Scott Tisdel

smg58 said...

Scott T:

To get into the fan forum, go to http://varttina.com/forum2/index.php and look for 'Register' in the list if options at the top center. You then create a User ID and password. (Alas, you can't use 'scott' as an ID, because that is taken.)

I thought the sub drummer was really good, so I happily forgave the length of the solo.

The pic is actually an official photo, not my own.

Scott G