It’s been one week since the attempted car bomb on Times Square and nobody — I said nobody — is avoiding the indisputable “crossroads of the world.” The Nokia Theatre, just one or two blocks away from where that Pathfinder was parked, is sold out for the second of three shows by Norwegian pop trio a-ha. They burst onto the scene in 1985 with their debut album, Hunting High and Low. This tour, aptly titled Ending on a High Note, marks the 25th anniversary of that album, the release of their ninth and final studio album, Foot of the Mountain, and the end of the a-ha era. The still dreamy frontman Morten Harket, synthesizer and keyboardist Magne Furuholmen and guitarist Paul Waaktaar-Savoy will play their final live show in Oslo on December 4, 2010. For now, they are criss-crossing the world to say “thank you” to their legions of fans.
You may be curious why I’m making such a fuss about a-ha, a band that only had one or two hits in the U.S., so I’ll tell you. a-ha was the first pop music concert I ever saw. It was 1985 at the Music Hall in Kansas City, Mo. My then 12-year-old sister, Shelley, was obsessed with the gorgeous Harket (who wasn’t?), so my mom “made me go” and accompany her. We sat in the cheap seats on the balcony, but my memory of that night and that show cemented my love for live music forever. The most vivid memory was of a girl in acid-washed jeans jumping on stage, onto Harket and wrapping her legs around him. I’ve never seen that happen at a concert since.
The other significance of a-ha was the contribution of arguably the most iconic music videos of the 1980s, “Take on Me.” Even by today’s standards, it’s a brilliant music video with charcoal sketch illustrations juxtaposed to video. But the song that I really loved was “The Sun Always Shines on TV.” Both were written by Paul Waaktaar-Savoy, and became the quintessential Euro-pop songs and videos of the ’80s. “The Sun Always Shines on TV” video picks up where “Take On Me” left off, with the same girl and the sketch treatment before Harket vanishes on the horizon. Then it is set in a Gothic cathedral full of creepy mannequins. Enjoy…
This was the first time I’ve been to the Nokia Theater in Times Square, and it’s pretty cool. My first observation was that everyone was talking about a-ha. Everyone. The girls behind me swapped stories about which one they loved as girls, the first time they saw them, or that they’ve been waiting 25 years for this night. Others were talking about last night’s show, stalking them at the stage door for autographs and yammering about how good they still look and sound. All this made me think about how different this experience would be compared to the shows of up-and-coming artists I usually frequent who don’t have fan bases of a quarter century. Myself being on the cusp of 40, it was refreshing to be reminded that youth and “new-now-next” aren’t everything.
Opening acts are hit or miss, right? They warm up the crowd, and they give lesser-known artists a platform and exposure to potential fans. More often than not, opening acts fail to connect with me. But not tonight. Tonight I discovered Sondre Lerche. Self-described as a psychotically obsessed a-ha fan as a kid, Lerche is also from Norway but now resides in New York. Thank god, because I have got to see him again. He’s really handsome, great on guitar, and has a beautiful voice that reminds me a little of Rufus Wainwright but more like John Cameron Mitchell. Check out his latest album, Heartbeat Radio. I’m already a fan of the track, “Good Luck.”
After two hours of holding my small piece of real estate on the floor, the lights dimmed and a giant screen of beautiful illustrations lit up. Very dramatic opening, a la Kylie. They opened with the big single off their current album, the soaring “Foot of the Mountain.” I love this song. My buddy Arjan turned me back on to a-ha with this single. It’s great. Get it. They went on to perform “The Bandstand,” “Analogue” and “Forever Not Yours” which made me smile as images of lizards were projected behind the band. In a couple of sequences, the lizard unleashed his giant tongue to catch prey to an a-ha song. It was pretty awesome. Then a moon man appeared ushering in a great acoustic performance of “Minor Earth, Major Sky.”
At this point of the show, I’m impressed with how many brilliant pop songs a-ha has amassed over the years. “Summer Moved On,” “Move to Memphis,” “The Blood The Moves The Body,” the sweet “Stay On These Roads,” and the James Bond theme song, “The Living Daylights.” I forgot about this one. Amazing!! It’s so much better than Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill.” Just my opinion. More mid-career songs like “And You Tell Me,” “Early Morning,” and “Scoundrel Days” were up next. Rounding out the set were “The Swing of Things,” “Looking for the Whales,” “Manhattan Skyline” and “I’ve Been Losing You.”
a-ha ended with “Cry Wolf” before coming back for two encores. The first included “The Sun Always Shines on TV” and “Hunting High and Low.” “The Sun…” surpassed all expectations. I was 15-years-old all over again. “Touch me. How can it be? Believe me. The sun always shines on TV. Hold me. Close to your heart. Touch me. Give all the love to me. To me.” Could it get any better? Yes, it did. They led a mass sing-a-long to “Hunting High and Low.” I am not kidding, every 30- and 40-something woman around me was in tears. Seriously. It’s pretty powerful for a song to induce tears from adults and because it touched a part of their childhood memory. While I didn’t shed a tear, I still feel in many ways that I’m hunting high and low. The final encore was of course, “Take On Me.” In the end, I felt fortunate to have seen them 25 years ago as many in the room had not, and to see them again in 2010 for their farewell was extra special. Good luck, gentlemen, on your future endeavors. And thank you for being a part of our collective youth.