Rogerio Simoes re-lives a special night at The Barbican in the company of Susanne Sundfør and makes the case for a special live album.
The Covid-19 pandemic has led to the suspension of live music in much of the world, to the release of many live albums recorded in pre-Covid days, and to an interesting debate about the value of those recordings.
There was a time when live albums were the cherry on the cake of any artist’s career. The best ones were even more popular than the artists themselves – Deep Purple’s Made in Japan, Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive!, Queen’s Live Killers and Supertramp’s Paris attracted millions of people who didn’t know the original versions of their tracks. U2’s Under a Blood Red Sky introduced the Irish band to a new, global audience, while Dire Straits’ Alchemy: Dire Straits Live put the group on the path towards stardom.
Today it’s a different story. There’s so much music recorded live available on the internet or on TV, from YouTube videos to demos on Soundcloud and festivals coverage on digital TV, that nobody seems to ask for official live albums anymore.
We still need them, though, if they prove to be better than all the other live stuff that’s been offered everywhere. More than ever, that recording must add significant extra value to both studio versions and internet’s live ones; the artist must be great at performing on stage; the live recording must represent a pivotal moment in that artist’s career; and, when listening to that album, one must think: “I wish I were there”.
Considering the requirements listed above, one recent effort comes to mind as having ticked all those boxes: Susanne Sundfør’s Music for People in Trouble: Live from the Barbican.
Released in November 2019, this live album is a gem that works as an act of kindness to the world. It allows everybody who was not at the Barbican to experience one of the greatest concerts ever performed, in London or anywhere in the world. On that Monday, 21st of May, 2018, something very special took place at the heart of the British capital – and I know it because I was there. I saw it and was ecstatic when the album was released, so I was able to hear that concert over again.
It was a gig like no other. Norwegian Susanne Sundfør took to London, for one night only, the show she had only played in Norway and in which her majestic fifth album Music for People in Trouble (2017) was performed in its entirety, behind a huge transparent screen where images, visual effects and live scenes from the stage were projected.
At the Barbican, expectations were high. When Sundfør and her bandmates arrived on stage, all of them were wearing black and covered with hooded black cloaks, as Benedictine monks or extra-terrestrial Jedis ready to take us on a journey – the applause, as they enter, is the first thing we hear on the record. The effect of the outfit on the singer’s looks was striking, as the album cover shows.
We could talk for hours about the visual impact of the concert, but the album is about the music – and that was even more impressive. The gig opened with the title track, which on the album is track 5, a spoken word recording taken from a conversation she’d had with environmentalist Andres Roberts, mixed with weird sounds that remind us of water and caves.
“Sometimes we feel like we have to grab it and do something with it.” Roberts is talking about life, which for him must be dealt with in a different manner. “Life happens through us. We don’t do life, we don’t choose life, life does us.”
After that, Live from the Barbican reproduces the route of the original album, and Susanne Sundfør sings Mantra, a gorgeous acoustic piece with words about different personal states, repeated as variations of a mantra. “I’m as lucky as a moon / On a starry night in June (…) I’m as empty as the Earth / An insignificant birth.”
Both her acoustic guitar playing, classic style, and her voice are looser and more daring than in the studio version – and the listener can tell the audience is already in awe. Those in the Barbican also had eyes and at this moment saw Sundfør at the front of the stage, her face partially covered by her black cloak’s hood, with a huge image of a colourful galaxy and stars projected on the transparent screen that separated stage and audience.
Sundfør stays where she is for Reincarnation, another acoustic guitar based, jewel of a song, which in its live version has the double of its original duration, with 8 minutes of a full band effort including a cracking saxophone solo and the additional 2 minute of atmospheric guitar in the end. The singer’s stunning voice begins to expand to places only she can take us, and the result is goosebumps galore and effusive applause.
Music for People in Trouble was born out of Susanne Sundfør’s concerns about the environment and the future of our planet, mixed with some deep personal feelings. It also represented a return to her musical origins, with much use of the piano, after years dedicated to more electronic music.
Good Luck Bad Luck is one of the moments showing how the piano allows Sundfør to use her voice to venture into different paths every time she performs on stage. “The almighty scientist / Says most of the universe is empty and gods don’t exist”, she sings in a quite frightening opera-like mood.
The band then takes over the track in an audacious free-jazz exercise, led by saxophone and double-bass. Sundfør is back with the acoustic guitar for The Sound of War, a beautifully chilling song that talks about the horrors that wars leave behind. “Leave this ghost town / Before they burn it down / Before they take the crown.” The following 4 minutes of mainly electronically generated music represent the sound of war itself.
Bedtime Story touches on fears of environmental apocalypse – “And when the nights are cold and strange and all the birds are gone / And all the oil’s been spilt and left us on this Earth alone” – and is the most jazz-influenced song of the album, with two minutes of pure saxophone in the end.
It serves as a build-up to what was probably the most anticipated moment of the evening: Undercover. The track, previously released as a single, is arguably Sundfør’s most beautiful and accomplished song to date, definitely one of the greatest tunes of the past decade.
After one note on the piano, Sundfør sings the first verses, “Don’t trust the ones who love you / Cause if you love them back / They will always disappoint you / It’s just a matter of fact”. For an album so concerned with the collective future of the world, it’s an incredibly personal song, which Sundfør performs with plenty of passion.
The listener doesn’t know it, but at this moment the massive screen in the Barbican shows only the singer’s right profile. Her hood is off, her long blonde hair covers her shoulders, and we can see every bit of emotion on her face as she magnificently sings and caresses the piano’s keys.
The band joins her towards the end, the music growing in intensity, while Sundfør repeats the chorus: “I wish I had a lover who’d keep it undercover / We could live our dreams, we’d sail in golden wings”. She then lets her voice go, taking it as high as the Sun. Tears were shed in the audience.
The sorrow continues with No One Believes in Love Anymore, before Golden Age brings us back to a more global perspective, talking about nature, whales and dreams, while synthesisers slowly take over the music.
Mountaineers, which in the studio has the participation of John Grant in the initial verses – “Jumbo jet spiralling down / Like vultures of the stars / Soaring above barren land / Of boiling tar” – is the final chapter of the concert and the album. In the Barbican, Sundfør performed the entire song herself, lending her voice to the initial scary description of a world in tatters.
The song’s mood suddenly changes, and hope imposes itself. “What we are, what we want / It will never change / We won’t abide your laws anymore”. Sundfør sings that hope, while the whole band, all the hoody Jedis, come together in an incredible finale of electronic sounds, accompanied by colourful psychedelic visuals on the screen.
The repetition of the original Mantra’s chords then puts an end to the song and to the journey. A mesmerized audience immediately gives a standing ovation, while Susanne Sunfør and the other six musicians eventually return to the front of the stage, hoods off, to take a bow.
We can’t see that in the album, but we can hear the noise, and that’s enough. Music for People in Trouble: Live from the Barbican is an amazing musical experience that ends like every great live album should: with the emotional applause that makes you understand how memorable that night was and why it deserved to be immortalised on a record. You close your eyes and are able to imagine what happened in that unique moment. The concert is brought to life again – and you wish you were there.