Wednesday, February 17, 2010
"Top Of the World, Ma!" (well, almost...)
James Cagney, White Heat -Warner Bros, 1949
It was pitch dark by the time our almost two hour flight north from Oslo landed in Tromsø, Norway. Too bad, surrounded by magnificent snow covered mountains (this time of year) the approach is quite a sight. The first time we landed here, nearly two years ago, it was a brilliantly clear autumn day. I could see farms clinging to the shores of a maze of long-armed fiords with translucent, almost Caribbean-looking waters -I say almost. I don't know why, but I was surprised to see trees, although the tree-line was extremely low -they abruptly thinned out and disappeared just above the town.
We weren't going to get to spend as much time here as we would have liked (although due to unexpected snow it almost wound up being a lot more than planned). Lovers of way-out places, the band had already fallen in love with Norway's ninth largest city on our first visit -in fact we fell in love with the very idea of it even before we got there. Then despite Tromsø's outlandish location over 350km north of the Arctic Circle, instead of Ice Station Zebra, we had discovered a fine old city. In remembrance of the city's role as jumping off point during the heroic 19th -early 20th century age of polar exploration, a statue of Norwegian conqueror of the South Pole, Rould Amundsen, proudly surveys the main shopping street. Tromsø boasts many 'northern-mosts': northern-most university, and more importantly, northern most brewery -'Mack (www.mack..no) ' -producing pilsener, dark beer and the appropriately-named 'Arctic' brand in cans. The brewery complex also includes Tromsø's oldest pub, a fine, oaky place decorated with stuffed polar bears, which residents will proudly tell you opens at 9AM by special license (well, they do make the stuff...). I was also told there was a thousand year old church across the fiord. If so, it almost dated to the same age of violent expansion that propelled the Vikings across the Atlantic's unknown vastness to Iceland, Greenland and North America (which known as 'Markland', was included in the Norwegian king's title as one of his realms in medieval times).
After being picked up at the airport by Egon Holstad of the Blå Rock Café (www.blarockcafe.no) , we barely had time to soundcheck and grab one of Blå Rock's famous burgers, then over to The Viking Hotel (www.vikinghotel.no) for a quick wash up before playing. Typical of nordic hotels, The Viking doesn't offer much in the way of charm, but unlike the town's more upscale lodgings (like the local Scandic, which is quite outside the city center), it is right around the corner from the Blå Rock, as well as a stone's throw from the Mack Brewery, the town's shopping district, harbor and tourist attractions like Polaria (live bearded seals, etc).
When we got back to Blå Rock, it was even more crowded than the first time we played there. It's always a thrill playing to a sweaty, packed house, even if that does mean about 125 people. Compact and multi-level, The Blå Rock is one of the world's outstanding music clubs and a favorite place to play. In this of all places, I noted that they not only stocked 'Frothee' ('a perfect whiskey sour every time') but 'Ratzeputz', the fiery Saxon ginger digestif. This is a good bar. We met two Polish tourists who had spent the past two nights marveling at the aurora borealis, although locals said that compared to other years, this year's northern lights were a dud. At any rate, that night the sky was quite overcast -a light snow was beginning to fall. From here there's still a good deal of north left in Norway -someone flew down for the show from Hammerfest (about a half hour flight further north). We've got our sights set on playing in Svalbard, more commonly known as Spitzbergen, a scant 660 miles shy of the North Pole. You hear stories about folks staggering home after pub-crawls getting mauled by polar bears, a hazard I can't personally verify -yet.
The House Of Rock (Moss, Norway)
After almost getting snowed into Tromsø, it was a relief to arrive back in Oslo for our drive to Moss, a small city about an hour to the south. We were playing a 'house party' - a triple birthday bash for singer Vibeke Saugestad, Norwegian film star Caroline Andersen and garage-pop-mover Morten Henriksen. In the living room not one but two bands were on tap, the festivities to be kicked off by Norwegian girl-rockers The Cocktail Slippers (who have a new 'release' on Little Steven Van Zandt's 'Wicked Cool' record label www.cocktailslippers.no).
I first met Morten many years ago when I was assistant engineer on a recording project for his group The Vikings at Coyote Studios in Northside, Williamsburg (long gone -man, how THAT area has changed). Now from Moss he lords over a pantheon of Nordic rock & rollers including The Yum Yums www.myspace.com/ilovetheyumyums), The Twistaroos (www.myspace.com/thetwistaroos), and a budding recording career for Caroline (www.carolineandersen.com).
The entire evening was a reminder of how great it is to play house parties -the natural element of rock &roll, or at least of The Fleshtones, who began our band-life this very way back in Whitestone and Flushing 34 years ago. The music and refreshments flowed -Ringnes Beer (Norway's top brand) and Marques di Monistrol 2004 reserva privada -quite good but you wonder how 'private' can this stuff be if they sell it in the supermarket? It was our third time playing at Morten and Caroline's a.k.a. The House Of Rock. I'm always surprised the neighbors don't call the police.
Actually, we ran into one of the neighbors at the supermarket the next day, and she was very nice -in fact quite pleased to meet us (maybe the cake that Caroline baked for her helped). As it was, our next show in Oslo wasn't until Wednesday, so for the next few days we went domestic with Caroline and Morten -going to the supermarket, visiting thrift shops (got a stylish pair of black sunglasses for only NKr25, a deal topped by another shop where I got not only a classic pair of shades, the lady tossed in a 'lackerol' for only NKr10!). One night we watched the Super Bowl minus the commercials (but with Norwegian commentary) until 4:30AM, another night we watched 'Tropic Thunder' and at all times enjoyed great music from Morten's collection. We also (successfully) searched for epoxy glue to repair his collection of 50's modern 'black African beauty' (made in Norway) wall sculptures that were accidently smashed by drunken guests during HOR performances. After walking along a snowy nature trail and visiting the somewhat belligerent swans at the totally frozen beach (which I'm told is very popular during summer, whatever day that is) we stopped for hot cocoa with rum at Riis (www.visitmoss.no), a cafe in one of the city's old rehabilitated water-powered factories. The city's current main employer? You won't be in town long before you can guess that it's a paper mill, which imparts an unmistakable cabbage-like aroma that's famous across Norway.
the beach, Moss
-Lingon' and swingin'
Forget the herring (that's Sweden anyway), for the next few days we were well fed on Norwegian specialties, including one of my favorites -'brown' cheese, which comes in blocks (about the size of a pound of butter) made of either goat or cow milk, or a combination of both. It's tangy, somewhat sweet and reminiscent of dulce de leche -okay, caramel (although putting it that way lessens its appeal somewhat). After performing I went on an almost unstoppable binge of eating pølse -extra-long hot dogs wrapped in tortilla-like lompa (hot-dogs with waffles are also a Moss speciality). We also enjoyed finbiff -reindeer in sour cream sauce with mashed turnips and lingonberry, and a new one on me- røkt lammelår -a whole smoked leg of lamb (a veritable 'lamb ham') complete with roast fingerling potatoes and lingonberries, lapskaus -a thick soup made with root vegetables in rich meat-stock, in our case lots of the left-over 'lamb-ham' -good with a dab of lingonberry...which needless to say is good on your bread or svele (thick pancakes) and topping off a hunk of pikekyss -a huge whipped cream-filled meringue cake.
The bags of trash from the party in Morten's van were starting to compete with the smell of the paper mill (in all honesty, you can only smell the mill at certain times in certain places) so we all drove out to the municipal recycling/ site -transfer station/ dump. It unexpectedly closed early, so we had to return the next day. Although Morten spotted the police check point ahead and quickly snapped on his safety belt, the cops had advance observers in position and we were pulled over anyway. Morten's 'ID' was checked and he was given a 'breathalyzer' test (at 3 in the afternoon) by an extremely cheerful policeman, who none-the-less wrote him a NKr1,500 summons for not wearing his safety belt (I told you Norway was expensive). We still had about a dozen huge bags of empty beer bottles and cans from the party, so we stopped at the supermarket to redeem the deposits. Like in The States, the recycling machines will give you a receipt to bring to the cashier, but in Norway they can also 'make it interesting' for you -you can hit a button and bet your refund on a chance to win a NKr2,000,000 prize. More altruistically, you can also automatically donate your proceeds to The Norwegian Red Cross. Somehow we ran out of time to visit Otto down at the plant, where he had invited Bill Milhizer to test drive some of the new models of self-propelled wheelchairs.
Verdict? There is just too much to do in Moss.
Caroline at the dump, Moss
Feb. 10, 2010
On Wednesday afternoon we made a sunny drive to Oslo (those sunglasses came in handy), with dark pines and granite outcroppings peering out from under a brilliant mantle of snow -white expanses where you'll see dozens of lakes in a few months. Oslo, by far Norway's' largest city (pop. 570,000) and capital, is never the less compact and quite walkable. After 3 days in Moss, I almost found myself wandering around slack-jawed, staring at all the tall buildings. The aesthetic experience of strolling this busy jumble of new and old, however, is diminished somewhat by the numerous junkies one encounters. Ah, forget about that, if you're not attuned to that sort of thing you probably won't even notice. I'd recommend a hoof to the Royal Palace, then beyond to the famous Vigelandsparken Museum & Sculpture Garden. You'll need to take a public bus or taxi if you want to visit the Viking Ships Museum (worth it!).
Speaking of tall buildings, Caroline and I dropped in on DJ Young Danny, who was kind enough to invite us to join him during his broadcast over Radio Tango 105.8FM. The top-floor studios offer a panoramic view of the entire city and it's environs. I noticed that Oslo must be one of the few urban centers with not one but two ski-jumps within city limits. Then a dash to Elm Street (www.elmstreetcafe.no) for soundcheck and another burger (we were beginning to wonder where the Scandinavians were hiding all the meatballs). I don't think any of the not more than 85 people regretted being there later that night, but the narrow bar concentrated the audience (and their energy) to good effect. The Cocktail Slippers, with the addition of their keyboard player, were even better than at HOR (House Of Rock). Afterwards, the nordic-modern Thon Hotel Astoria (www.thonjotels.noastoria) across the street provided a super-convenient retreat. It was also a mere 3 minute walk to Oslo's main train terminal where the next morning we caught the express train to Gardermoen International Airport (20 minutes, NKr 170) for the SAS flight to Stockholm and our Super Rock Weekend.
next: 'I'll Take Sweden' -The Fleshtone's Stockholm Super Rock Weekend