"A Cello Played With A Fish"

theartsdesk.com: Kieron Tyler: 11th August 2013.

theartsdesk in Bodø: a World of Music inside the Arctic Circle

Elvis Costello headlines the genre-busting Nordland Musikkfestuke in remotest Norway

“Rock ‘n’ roll was invented in Bodø about 1922,” declares Elvis Costello before kicking into “A Slow Drag With Josephine”. “Then it crept down to Trondheim,” he continues. “Then the squares in Oslo got it about 1952.” Up here, 25km inside the Arctic Circle, it actually seems possible that anything could have developed without the outside world noticing. On the tip of a finger of land between two mountain-fringed fjords, the city of Bodø doesn’t need to shout its identity. The setting is enough.

Costello is here with the Imposters, playing Bodø Spektrum as the opening attraction of the 2013 Nordland Musikkfestuke. Since 1980 the annual festival has brought artists of international standing to the north of Norway. This year, Germany’s Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin are here, along with Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud, long-established Swedish vocalist Lisa Nilsson and Kari Bremnes – Norway’s “Queen of Sensuality". Weimer-style cabaret, Dutch soprano Johannette Zomer and genre-straddling jazz saxophonist Henning Gravrok further emphasise that Nordland Musikkfestuke is about all music. As does a cello played with a fish.

Its uncommonly broad booking policy makes Nordland Musikkfestuke a major event. Bodø, its host city, is north Norway’s second-biggest and the administrative centre of the Nordland region. Even so, it only has a population of 46,000. As well as the fjords, it’s backdropped by mountains so sizable they look close enough to touch. Strain your eyes on a warm afternoon and it’s actually possible to see the Svartisen glaciers. Yet during the festival's opening ceremony the temperature was a surprising 25 centigrade. There are no polar bears on the streets of Bodø (pronunced “boo-da” – disconcerting when heard repeatedly), a reminder that the Arctic Circle is not the Arctic itself.

At the Spektrum, Costello offered few words over his 90-minute set. Constantly chewing gum, during the first half hour he attacked the audience with an unbroken sequence of songs rattled off with such force that most onlookers stood as if straining to keep upright in a wind tunnel. “Heart of the City”, "Mystery Dance”, “Radio Radio” – all were delivered like lightning bolts. After that salvo, the tone shifted to bring light and shade. “She” was introduced, as was “Spooky Girlfriend”, but the general lack of patter meant Costello didn’t breach the barrier between himself and the all-ages audience. The songs were mostly well known and, considering it was probably the first time he had played this far north, it was exactly right for a crowd with little opportunity otherwise to see him.

But the highlight of his set came when Swedish cellist Svante Henryson stepped on for a nuanced rendering of “Shipbuilding”. As the festival’s artist in residence, Henryson cropped up all over the place, whether guesting, in special collaborations, or on his own. Together, Henryson and Costello had written “Green Song” for Costello’s 2001 collaboration with Anne Sofie von Otter, For the Stars. Reuniting them was a coup.

As well as working as von Otter’s musical director, Henryson has also played bass with Yngwie Malmsteen. That his approach to music is as broad as the festival’s came into sharp focus a couple of nights later during his solo show at the British-styled Piccadilly pub, when he played blues on his cello with a stockfish – the local air-dried fish – he’d been given. Minutes earlier he was raptly caught in an intense raga. A man who bleeds music.

The night after his Piccadilly appearance, Henryson was on stage at the Kulturhuset with fellow Swede Lisa Nilsson. Her career-spanning concert drew on 20-plus years of recording and had sold out six months in advance. Although pretty much unknown outside Scandinavia, she’s a major star with a musical arc taking her near Cassandra Wilson, Bebel Gilberto and Mariza, but with a laid-back approach that's all her own. Again, and without Costello’s fire, Bodø was rapt.