The first time I went to Kongsberg Jazz Festival was the year Ornette Coleman delivered a sensational performance on the same stage that Wilco would underwhelm (as usual) on later in the evening. This year history would repeat itself.
I ran through the rainy streets of Kongsberg after wolfing down a baguette on the bus from Oslo and trying to mend my hangover with a cold coke. When leaving the capital city in most countries you get slapped in the face with the brazen white-trashiness that literally 100 Kilometers of distance creates. Kids with rat tails, bozos doing wheelies on mountain bikes, mums with tribal tattoos and 4 kids spilled down the road in jeans pulled up WAY too high. I guess we are accused of being snobs or hipsters in the big city, but i’ll take that over walking around with curly sideburns and a Linkin Park t-shirt, any day.
The accreditation process took almost 45 minutes due to some lady manually writing all the band members names out and having to laminate them in a machine that wasn’t hot enough. I stood, itching to not miss any of the show I had come to see: Getatchew Mekuria & The Ex with friends.
Getatchew, the Ethiopian godfather of Sax, was to play his final show in Norway, too old to return to Europe again after this tour. You can hardly blame him. At somewhere between 78-85 years old (not even he knows) the rigors of flights, van drives and late nights must have taken its toll. They were to play at the Tubaloon stage, ironically enough the stage Ornette Coleman played on 5 years ago, a Jazz maestro that Getatchew claims to have never heard of. I managed to get my press pass thirty minutes before the show and sat drinking a 7 quid beer while chatting with an Eritrean man who was beaming in anticipation of the concert. This was my first time seeing The Ex, and the first time seeing Getatchew.
A meager crowd stood huddled under the overhanging parts of the stage when the band came out. The rain had no doubt put off a lot of punters, and perhaps the obscurity of the artists themselves. More people would no doubt come out later to see The Flaming Lips. What materialized in the next hour was one of the most magical concerts of the past year/s. A band of passionate, like-minded musicians playing their hearts out with the jolly Granddad over-seeing events and adding the slinky smooth notes that he is famous for. Everyone in the crowd was mesmerized.
Getatchew seemed totally at ease, and walked the stage with an authority that comes from being a master of your craft. The Ex blended in seamlessly, their collaborations bringing the best from each camp. African melodies melded in with noise parts from Terry and Andy’s guitars, Katherina’s drumming was excellent and her vocal parts on 2 songs fit perfectly. Two dancers came out for a couple of songs and added an intense side to the music, thrusting and shaking so violently it looked like their heads would fall off at one point. During a solo part, Getatchew actually threw up his hands in a huge expression of delight and kissed the cheek of the musician mid-solo. An artist praising another one.
The show seemed over before it even began. The hour + just vanished into thin air. It left a crowd breathless from dancing and also drained of emptying themselves into the music. Getatchew even asked at one point if there were any Ethiopians there, a woman next to me screamed out, and he played a song for her and her boyfriend, something deeply personal no doubt cause she was in tears from the first notes. A dumb photographer got in the way and Getatchew just shooed him away with his saxophone, visibly irked that someone was so disrespectful. The crowd were silent. A rare occurrence anywhere these days. With the last few songs bringing the temperature back to the boil they left the stage, returned for an encore, and disappeared. Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips popped in for a few seconds to take a picture of the stage and film the audience. I hope he felt the energy of the crowd and could compare it to the limp dick moments that would follow their performance.
I needed a beer after that. Some shows just end and you don’t want to see another one. You don’t want your mood altered or your perception of the other show sullied. However, you also don’t turn down a chance to watch a band playing 20 meters away from you, even if it is the Flaming Lips.
Understand me. The Flaming Lips have been a monumental band in the progression of underground music. Their early works and even up to the Soft Bulletin have been challenging and crossed genres. However, since they decided that their bank accounts were not big enough, things have taken a dive. They entered the stage with much fanfare, balloons, confetti, lights, all the same tricks they have been using for almost 10 years. Nothing new. Like a Broadway musical that keeps its strict formula for decades. However, in music we crave evolution. The balloons tested the drunk peoples motor-skills, the confetti ruined everyone’s beer, the dancing girls on stage looked awkward, the blow up ball that Wayne careens around the audience with took longer to blow up than he spent rolling around, the music was limp, insipid, drawn out, lacking any substance, passion or guts. It was truly the witness of a band who have given up and are just cashing in cheques. Even having to remind the crowd after yet another muted applause, “If you are wondering if we love you or not, we really do. We are having an awesome time here”. Who are you kidding?
As the final song “Do you realize” spun out over the rainy city, I was firmly plodding along to catch the bus back to Oslo, fresh with the buzz of the Getatchew concert ringing in my ears, and trying to ignore the fact that I stood through 40 minutes of suffering fools.
Take a lesson from Grandpa Mekuria Wayne, get some passion back.