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A bus journey to a time before Abba

Since 2001, the gigs by BAO do not cater to the "Mamma Mia!" constituency

Elisabeth Vincentelli | NYT 

A view of a crowd during a concert. Photo: Shutterstock

Catherine King was easy to spot at a recent gig for Benny Andersson’s Orkester: She stood right by the stage, in front of a large Australian flag she had tied to the safety fence. King, 49, had travelled from her home in Tasmania to catch four concerts on the Swedish tour.

“I fell in love with Abba when I was seven, but unfortunately my parents wouldn’t let me go to their shows in Sydney,” King said. “I never forgave them for that.”

“Just joking,” she added. (She was not.)

Benny Andersson, the bearded pianist who bopped along behind his keyboard, was a key architect of Abba’s sound, writing and producing a string of unimpeachable earworms with his bandmate Bjorn Ulvaeus.

But the gigs by the large ensemble he has been leading since 2001 do not cater to the “Mamma Mia!” constituency.

Andersson, 72, sees his group, which goes by BAO, as part of the tradition of the hardworking “dansbands” that entertained Swedes for generations. Dansbands, whose popularity peaked in the 1970s and 1980s, would roam the country and play mainly pop, rock, disco and the cheesy easy-listening known as schlager with one goal in mind: Get people to dance.

Like most dansbands, BAO tours by bus, in this case a comfortable but not ostentatious double-decker. The extra room is needed because Andersson’s crew is supersize: 15 members — including string and horn sections and two singers — unusual for a regular dansband.

The set list is just as expansive, with 50 numbers over four hours. Only a handful are by Abba, and those are deep cuts like “Lovers (Live a Little Longer)” and “Put on Your White Sombrero.”

“I do them for those in the audience who are Abba fans because they would know these songs,” Andersson said, grinning. “The rest of the audience, probably not.”

BAO’s sets are puzzlingly diverse, as if someone had grafted together the playlists of 20 genres on Spotify. Attending four tour stops last week, I took in 16 hours of music — like Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, only more upbeat — and heard waltzes, big-band jazz, pop tunes, polkas, boogie, chansons, rockabilly, glam-rock stomps and traditional folk tunes. The band basically went through all the styles Abba smoothly integrated into its signature hits.

No musical stone was left unturned. A classical section included a riotous version of Bach’s “Badinerie” that featured virtuosic solos by Janne Bengtson on the flute and Kalle Moraeus on the banjo. It comes as no surprise to learn that the first is in the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, and the second is among Sweden’s foremost multi-instrumentalists.

“Benny writes real parts for us, almost like Duke Ellington with his band,” said Calle Jakobsson, a tuba player by day in the Royal Swedish Opera’s orchestra. With BAO, he added, “I probably play more notes than I do in a whole season at the opera.”

With recording solo projects, composing musicals, writing a suite for a Swedish royal wedding, and helping to oversee his former band’s legacy, Andersson’s post-Abba career has been extraordinarily fruitful. Yet it’s clear that BAO is special to him.

“When you play as long as we do, you watch the dancers and you get energised,” Jakobsson said. “It’s a great symbiosis.”

The dance floor is a wonderful equaliser — nobody batted an eyelash when Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, a longtime BAO fan, busted some moves at the concert in the small town of Trosa — and a nod to the tradition of the “folkpark,” where many dansbands plied their trade.

Folkparks, which flourished in the first half of the 20th century, were places where Swedes could dance to live music and enjoy carnival-type attractions. All of Abba’s members played them in the 1960s — Andersson and Ulvaeus even met at one — and they continued in the band’s early days, before switching to arenas worldwide. Nowadays, folkparks can seem old-fashioned, and there aren’t many left.

“The first BAO tour we did, we went to genuine folkparks with dance rotundas and small stages,” Andersson said. “Then we thought we should bring our own folkpark to the people: the dance floor, the games of darts, the hot dogs, the chocolate wheel — a wheel of fortune where you win chocolate. It was too messy so all we kept are the dance floor and the lights. But that’s enough.”

This is all of a piece for a man attuned to the ideas of tradition and community. He often switches to the accordion — the first instrument he learned — onstage. When not playing his own music he often collaborates with folk ensembles like the all-female Systerpolskan. He also supports educational initiatives aiming to preserve ancient instruments and musical techniques.

Preservation, fellowship and transmission are important to the musician, and the children of some BAO members often travel with the band. Until recently, the band members used to jam on the bus or at the hotel after their shows, and the new generation has picked up the baton: The three young fiddlers offered an impromptu session in the hotel’s dining room after the Leksand gig, with the adults beating the rhythm by stomping their feet.

“Playing music for people is the most rewarding thing you can do,” Andersson said. “You play together, and life is good.”

© 2019 The New York Times

First Published: Fri, August 16 2019. 21:51 IST