Nordic Roots Festival 2008, Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis MN, Sept. 26-28 2008

The last weekend in September marked a milestone in the appreciation of world music in the United States. The Nordic Roots Festival convened for the tenth consecutive year at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis, and once again fans of New Nordic Folk music traveled from across the country to attend. Most of the people attending the Festival were already aware that the 2008 edition would be significant for another reason -- this year would be the last with an all-Nordic format. I can't really object to the decision, honestly. The genre of New Nordic Folk has a handful of guaranteed draws, namely the Finnish band Värttinä and the Swedish groups Väsen, Hoven Droven, Hedningarna, and Garmarna. Last year, the Festival couldn't get any of the obvious headliners. Given all the expenses and difficulties that go into putting the Festival on, there were a distressing number of empty seats even for the night shows. So I don't really think preserving the status quo was sustainable over the long haul. This year, though, the Festival succeeded in getting Väsen, Hedningarna, and Hoven Droven to headline the night shows. That combination, plus the knowledge that the Festival would change after this year, resulted in a record number of festival passes being sold in advance.

Annbjørg Lien with her quartet

Friday night's show commenced with Norwegian fiddler Annbjørg Lien leading a performance of her most recent project, titled Waltz with Me. I've already discussed the CD here, so I'll refer you to that if you want to know details about the music. Lien's quartet for the evening included two Americans, Bruce Molsky (fiddles, banjo, guitar, vocals) and Tristan Clarridge (cello), along with veteran Swedish fiddler Mats Edén (fiddles). The performance was solid, if somewhat predictable given my familiarity with the CD. While Lien has performed at the Festival several times, this was the first time she actually sang, doing the parts that a guest vocalist did on the album. You could tell that she doesn't have as much confidence in her voice as she does in her hardanger fiddle playing, but she handled herself well enough.


Always a sublimely good live act, Väsen took the stage shortly afterwards and didn't disappoint. Olav Johannson (nyckelharpa), Mikael Marin (viola), and Roger Tallroth (12-string guitar) are superior musicians who just have this special chemistry together. They made a point of acknowledging not only Rob Simonds, the founder of NorthSide Records and driving force behind the Festival, but also the Festival audience for their unyielding loyalty and affectionate support. "We all talk about you back home," they said. Several other performers would make similar statements over the course of the weekend.

Saturday began with a pair of workshops, the first of which was held by members of the band Frigg. The tune they taught was "Vankarin Polska," which I had already learned when I was in Maine in August. I could still use the practice, though, and then they invited everybody at the workshop to come onstage and play the tune with them during their Sunday afternoon set. Well now, this weekend just got more interesting. I also sat in on Annbjørg Lien's hardanger fiddle workshop; I don't play the instrument myself but I know several people who do, and I had my digital recorder with me.


The Saturday afternoon show featured Triakel, a Swedish trio featuring Garmarna's Emma Härdelin (vocals), Hoven Droven's Kjell-Erik Eriksson (fiddle), and Janne Strömstedt (harmonium). Hardelin and Eriksson may take some rather big liberties with the tradition in their more famous other bands, but Triakel is about as traditional as New Nordic Folk gets. This is common with Scandinavian folk musicians, especially the younger ones; they tend to have multiple projects going on, some of which are firmly rooted in the tradition, and some leave plenty of room for experimentation. Triakel's set consisted of traditional songs from their home region of Jämtland, with subject matter ranging from the humorous to the quite dark. They might not be as exciting as some of the other groups, but their combination of professionalism and charm was pleasing nonetheless.


The lone newcomer in this year's Festival was a Swedish trio called Detectivbyrån. My friends Mai and Pam bumped into them on the way from the airport to the hotel on Thursday, and assured me they were really nice guys. Indeed, one of them came over to us as they were setting up their gear before the Saturday night show, and asked if we could take pictures for them on his brand new camera. I got several shots for them over the course of their show, and I also filmed their opening tune. I'm kind of hoping it shows up on YouTube at some point. With a glockenspiel, accordion, drums, and some synthesizers, they weren't folky in the same way that the rest of the bands were. Then again, their sound is so impossible to categorize that they fit in just as well at the Festival as they would any place else. Plus, the Festival has as open-minded an audience as you're ever going to find, and we've always appreciated music that's a little bit different. Detectivbyrån rattled off one goofy, off-kilter waltz after another, and won over the audience pretty easily.


The mighty Hedningarna headlined the Saturday night show. Hedningarna were one of the essential bands of the 90's from any genre, whether performing as a mostly instrumental group or with the help of two Finnish women singers. (Their 1994 CD Trä and their 1996 CD Hippjokk would get A+ ratings from me.) They've been mostly silent this decade, but they still embody Scandinavian folk music at its most viscerally primal. The instrumental core quartet, led by founding members Anders Norudde (fiddles, winds, pipes) and Hallbus Totte Mattson (lute and hurdy-gurdy), got to pretty much all the good stuff in their repertoire. Their combination of Medieval instuments (including Norudde's vast assortment of homemade keyed fiddles) with heavy metal distortion and the atmosphere of a rave will startle the uninitiated, but the Festival crowd got exactly what they paid to hear.

Frigg, by themselves

The workshop students take the stage (photo by Mai Kiigemagi)

And that's me in the back (photo by Mai Kiigemagi)

I'd been fantasizing about taking the stage at Nordic Roots for quite some time, and on Sunday afternoon I got the chance. Now, I should acknowledge that Frigg performed by themselves for most of the show and did just fine. They had a very good new CD (already reviewed here) to plug, but got to plenty of their older "hits" as well. And then the stage got awfully crowded. There were at least twenty-five of us up there, including the band. I stood next to Frigg's cittern player, Petri Prauda, mainly so I could see what chords and stuff he was playing. (I was playing my bouzouki, which is very similar to a cittern.). Given the number of amateur players and the speed of the tune, I thought we sounded pretty tight. Mai said she could hear me, and that apparently wasn't a bad thing.


And finally, Hoven Droven

Sunday night brought the last show in the last Festival in an all-Nordic format. The opening act was Hurdy-Gurdy, a duo consisting of Hedningarna's Totte Mattson and Garmarna's Stefan Brisland-Ferner. As odd and archaic as the hurdy-gurdy looks, it's a remarkably flexible instrument. And when put in the hands of two creative musicians with and endless supply of amplifier pedals and other assorted electronic gadgets, the effect is pretty mind-blowing. Between sets, the chairs were pushed off too the side. Everybody who'd seen Hoven Droven at the Festival knew that they dislike playing in front of a seated audience, and that the chairs were going to get moved sooner or later anyway, so the Festival decided to simply take care of it beforehand in as orderly a fashion as possible. As things were being set up onstage, a couple of members of Hoven Droven teamed up with Annbjørg Lien and Mats Edén to form the Cedar Spelmanslag, who played some traditional dance tunes out on the open floor. Hoven Droven were their usual hard-rocking selves, running through the most familiar tunes in their repertoire. The highlight for me came when they got everybody to jump up and down during their march "Skuffen," just like we had done during their extremely memorable 2005 performance that became the live album Jumping at the Cedar.

But alas, all good things must come to an end. The Global Roots Festival, as it will be called next year, will feature bands from around the world. I'm curious to see who they get to come and play. It could easily wind up being better than the Nordic Roots Festival, but one way or another it won't be the same. As it stands, I got to eight of the ten Nordic Roots Festivals, and the fact that I kept going back should say more than enough about what kind of time I've had there over the years. It was a great run.

reviewed by Scott

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