Review: Väsen @ The Ropetackle Arts Centre (Shoreham-by-Sea, 9th November 2015)

With seventeen albums under their belts Swedish folk group Väsen have been together for twenty-five years – and doesn’t it show! The three players – Roger Tallroth, Olov Johansson and Mikael Marin play as one, their instrument being a thirty-three-stringed polska-playing machine (the ‘polska’ being a Swedish folk dance).

The Swedish word ‘Väsen’ can mean ‘spirit’, ‘noise’, ‘a living being’, and the group represents the very essence of contemporary traditional music in Sweden. In reality they play the twelve-stringed guitar, sixteen-stringed nyckelharpa (a bowed, keyed fiddle), and five-stringed viola, and in the folk music world Väsen is one of Sweden’s biggest exports. Not only did they have a record label started just for them (Olle Paulsson’s Drone Music), they even have a street named after them in Bloomington, Indiana. Originally Väsen Street was the trio’s imaginary place where they, their friends and fans would meet – but then it became reality. Bloomington’s mayor agreed to name the street after the group to honour their 20th anniversary of “making music for the world”. The band responded in kind by naming their 20th anniversary album Väsen Street.

So, five years on and Roger, Olov and Mikael have made a rare visit to England and to Shoreham’s Ropetackle Arts Centre. Buzzing with expectation the seated audience awaited the arrival on stage of this legendary band – and then the polskas began! And what a rich variety we were treated to, each one sandwiched between witty banter and humourous explanations that introduced a host of extraordinary characters.

The concert began with delicately interwoven parts on various polskas such as ‘The Red House Painter’, ‘Tom Morrow’s Polska’ and a Schottis. The rise and fall of flowing patterns interlaced with trills, sonorous viola riffs and dexterous guitar playing propelled us into beautiful sonic landscapes. The band introduced new textures with damped guitar and pizzicato on the waltz ‘Lilla Kulturbidragsvalsen’ (the Little Culture Support Waltz), ‘chopping’ viola patterns and trademark Swedish ornamentation were executed with flair and style on ‘Linnaeus Polones’ and pulsing guitar harmonics, with seamless dovetailing between the viola and nyckelharpa were abundant throughout.

Much of the material was from their latest live album Väsen Live på Gamla Bion, and old favourites such as the aforementioned ‘Vasen Street’, and ‘Flippen’ from their 2004 album Keyed Up were contrasted with a smattering of waltzes – there was even a set of jigs. Towards the end of the show the trio began to have some fun with more experimental sounds, bending and stretching rhythms, knocking on their instruments and even getting quite atonal before plunging back into familiar polska territory.

Throughout the show there was never a dull moment – a more close-knit trio you could not find. And after hundreds of concerts the world over Olov, Roger and Mikael still have fun on stage, making their music fresh and new to a captivated audience. Well, here’s hoping for another twenty-five years: long live Väsen and their wonderful music-making!

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