A Royal ABBA Salute And Other Scandinavian Musical Delights

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Välkommen from Scandinavia! More specifically, Gothenburg, Sweden, the country's "second city" and home to some of Rocks Off's favorite bands from recent years, including El Perro Del Mar, The Soundtrack Of Our Lives and The Knife.

This is our second trip in the last year to Gothenburg (Göteborg, if you're Swedish) - Rocks Off's SO is here on business and who can say no to a nearly free trip to Europe? - and in the four total weeks we've spent in the west coast city (and a few days in Oslo and Stockholm) we've come to the conclusion that Scandinavia is an underrated hotbed for musical discovery.

Musicians from elsewhere in Sweden include one half of The Knife: Fever Ray, The Hives, Peter Bjorn & John, Robyn, bob hund, Lykke Li, The Sounds, Sahara Hotnights. We could go on. Don't even get us started on the rest of Scandinavia. Shoegazers Mew are from Copenhagen, our favorite garage-rock podcasters The Dorktones are from the Netherlands and Low Frequency in Stereo are from Norway. Folkie José González is Swedish of Argentine descent.

Rocks Off just realized that a glimpse at this list pretty much sums up the bulk of our musical tastes. And that's not even counting the more established bands from Sweden. Your mom probably still has her Ace of Base CD. Yngwei Malmsteen leads the neo-metal movement, and Europe has been performing for 20-plus years.

Just take a look at this extensive Wikipedia article. Seriously, what's with that? Is it the Viking thing, or that fact that winter lasts 20 hours a day for nine months of the year here?

And don't even get us started on that one band. You know the one. The Holy Grail of Swedish music, and one of the top-selling musical acts in the history of music. Yep, we're talking about ABBA.

Over the holiday weekend, Rocks Off took a four-day trip to Stockholm where we had the intention of checking out the ABBA Museum to see if we could try to... understand... the international obsession with the long-defunct band, an obsession that has spawned movies, musicals and countless numbers of less-than-stellar imitators.

Unfortunately, ABBA The Museum has been beset with financial difficulties from its inception, despite the fact that at least one member, Benny Andersson, is quite successful in his second career as a hotel owner, and that both Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus receive royalties from the co-writing of the musical Mamma Mia.

ABBA The Museum was initially set to open last year, but the date was pushed back to "early 2010" until the space that was reserved for it, a 700-year-old dockside building, was re-imagined as Stockholm's first photography museum. Instead, the massive collection of ABBA-phenalia is currently on tour. In Australia.

But just to explain how seriously Sweden takes their most famous export, consider this: Rocks Off went to see the changing of the guards at the Stockholm Palace, and the Royal Band performed an ABBA song during the official ceremony. Later, we satiated our ABBA thirst with a couple of cocktails in the Art Deco bar of Rival, the upscale hotel Andersson now owns.

Last time Rocks Off was in Gothenburg, nearly a year ago, the city was filled with spillover shows from two different festivals - a cultural festival not unlike iFest where busking bands crowded nearly every open square in the city, and Way Out West, a young but extensive festival which this year will feature M.I.A., Iggy Pop and La Roux as headliners (not to mention dozens of other bands we currently love). This time, we'll unfortunately just miss Way Out West, just like we missed Metaltown previous to our arrival.

And the festivals aren't just for discovering Scandinavian bands either. Houston artist Miss Leslie is currently in Sweden too. This weekend, while Rocks Off was in Stockholm, Leslie was performing at the Lida Country Music Festival just outside the city (complete with Swedish stand-in Juke Jointers). She wrote about the experience on her blog:

I think the thing that I like the most about world traveling is the reminder that we are all different but all the same. Here, I don't understand a word of what anyone says. The food looks, smells and tastes completely different. The beds are set up like single beds -- even if it's a full size or larger. It gets dark -- at midnight (And only for a couple of hours). I have this feeling of being surrounded by unfamiliarity.

But a 3 year old still throws a temper tantrum. Families take their vacation together. And people are still affected by music (and country music at that).

Meanwhile, Mike Stinson just returned to Houston from the Country Music Festival in Vinstra, Norway, and one of Rocks Off's favorite holes in the wall here, a bar called Kon Tiki, plays regular host to local bands performing covers of Johnny Cash, Elvis and other old-school American faves. Rockabilly seems huge here - we even happened upon a band in Stockholm playing Stray Cats and originals to a packed house in a tiny medieval beer hall.

So when Miss Leslie talks about continuity and unity, it makes us smile. We came to Sweden to discover some new music, and we found local bands covering American hits, and Americans discovering new audiences. And we can't speak a lick of Swedish either.

Maybe music is the universal language.

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