Nordic Roots Festival 2007, Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis, MN, September 28-30 2007

The ninth annual Nordic Roots Festival was held this past weekend at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. This year's edition did not feature any of the big headlining acts from previous years, and had more than the usual amount of first-time performers. This likely was the cause of a noticeable drop in attendance; certainly the number of Festival passes, which grant the purchaser entrance to each show, was down this year, and even the headlining show on Sunday night had some empty seats. There were still some excellent performances, though, including some pleasant surprises from the performers I was previously unfamiliar with.

Ruth McKenzie, flanked by her backing vocalists

The Festival opened on Friday night with local folk artist Ruth McKenzie performing her music from the theatrical production Kalevala: Dream of the Salmon Maiden, to celebrate the show's tenth anniversary. McKenzie had immersed herself in a number of Scandinavian singing traditions, including Swedish kulning and Finnish runo songs. At some point she decided to take a story from the Finnish national epic poem the Kalevala and present it theatrically and musically in a way that would make sense to English-speaking audiences. To call it an ambitious undertaking would be a huge understatement, but the original production sold out its full run and met with rave reviews. McKenzie did not have the sets or any dancers with her on Friday night, but she did have a terrific supporting cast of musicians, several of whom had also been part of the original production. Some of the pieces came across as overwrought to me, but just as many were really intense and powerful. McKenzie deserves a lot of credit for pulling off such a difficult endeavor, and the locals who had seen the production back in 1997 greeted her performance on Friday with particular warmth and enthusiasm.


The Saturday show featured a young Swedish trio with the rather odd name of [ni:d] (pronounced "need"). Fiddler Mia Gustafsson, saxophonist Hanna Wiskari, and percussionist Petter Berndalen (who performed at last year's Festival with Gjallarhorn) played the tunes off their debut CD, and made a very favorable impression on the audience. Their material is firmly rooted in Swedish fiddling traditions, but [ni:d] play with considerable tightness, a lot of spirit, and a little bit of swing thrown in for good measure.

Sinikka Langeland and Markku Ounaskari

Sinikka Langeland, another newcomer to the Festival, opened the Saturday evening show. She comes from a part of Norway that was settled by Finnish immigrants and maintains a strong cultural connection to Finland. Her instrument of choice is the concert-sized kantele, a Finnish folk instrument. Accompanied by percussionist Markku Ounaskari, Langeland performed her musical adaptations of the works of the nature-inspired Norwegian poet Hans Børli. Her pieces tended to be very impressionistic and a little too loosely structured, though, and she didn't do a good enough job of engaging the audience. These shortcomings were at least partially offset by Ounaskari's superb playing and Langeland's very funny comment that she had heard that the Cedar was the "best club in Scandinavia."


The headliners for Saturday night were the veteran Finnish fiddle ensemble JPP. Twelve tears ago, their album Kaustinen Rhapsody was the first Scandinavian album I ever purchased. What they lack in flash, JPP have always made up for with beautiful tunes and superior musicianship. This show was certainly no exception, as the band spent the hour playing highlights from their twenty-five year history, making difficult tunes look effortless but sound great in the process.

The Lännen-Jukka String Band

The following afternoon featured the first Minneapolis performance of a group that are almost entirely unkown here, but their singer is a chart-topper in their native Finland. Ironically, the Lännen-Jukka String Band don't play their own country's folk music, but rather play some rootsy, swampy bluegrass and American old-time music. And they do a damn good job of it too. A rock star performing as his banjo-playing alter ego, J. Karjalainen quickly won the crowd over with his gravelly voice and funny stories. Plenty of people in the Minneapolis audience understood Finnish, and sang along loudly enough for the rest of us to hear them. The trio were the biggest crowd-pleasers of the Festival, and the fact that they had sold all the CD's they had brought with them on this tour before they even arrived in Minneapolis indicates that the Festival audience was not alone in liking them.

most of Den Fule

The Sunday night show began with a reunion performance by the Swedish group Den Fule. The first group to release a CD on the NorthSide label back when Rob Simonds began the process that ultimately led to the Festival's creation, Den Fule had not played together for nearly ten years before recently reforming. The quintet mixes jazz and hard rock in with their folk music, and had a few new tunes to go along with their old material. Their jazzy style probably wouldn't appeal to everybody -- then again, folk purists wouldn't go for the loud electric guitar either -- but Den Fule displayed some strong musicianship and really seemed to be enjoying playing together again after a long hiatus.

three fourths of Harv

Harv, frequent performers in the early years of the Festival when they were a very young band just starting out, returned this year as the Festival headliners. The Swedish quartet had a run of bad mishaps with their luggage both on the way to Minneapolis and in the hotel, but they played a blistering set nonetheless, and somehow managed to maintain their sense of humor. While I didn't like their latest CD Polka Raggioso quite as much as their previous album Töst, they are clearly only getting better as a live act, and more than lived up to their top billing.

Next year's Nordic Roots Festival will be significant for two reasons. First, it will be the tenth Festival, no small accomplishment given the enormous amount of legwork and the lack of steady funds. Second, while the Festival will continue after next year, it will become a more global affair, and Scandinavian music will no longer be showcased on an annual basis. Given the lack of big draws this year and the noticeable drop in attendance, I could see that something like this was coming. Hopefully the organizers will pull out all the stops next year, and the Nordic Roots Festival will get the glorious send-off it deserves.

Review and pictures by Scott

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