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FEATURE: How Copenhagen Music Venues are Coping with COVID Closures

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Kurdish musician Mizgin performs at Alice Copenhagen as part of their summer concert series.

Sitting in the courtyard on Nørre Allé between Union and Alice on a sunny Saturday is a nice way to pass an afternoon. Mizgin is playing energetic Kurdish folk music from a small stage. People are seated comfortably in rows, clapping along, and enjoying their drinks from a bar set up in front of the entrance to Alice. 

The concert is part of a summer series of shows with an audience capacity of 50 people, spaced at a government-mandated safe distance with clear guidelines posted on every table. It’s Alice’s way of making up for what has been months of no live music — and an effort to deal with an uncertain future for live music.

“It’s a fine line of doing something that doesn’t feel awkward and doesn’t feel forced but at the same time is where you can go and enjoy yourself and engage with music and feel it’s an actual concert,” says Rasmus Steffensen, who is is responsible for PR and communications at Alice.

Since mid-March we have been wondering what post-lockdown, post-COVID life will look like. Post-lockdown, many businesses businesses around Denmark have resumed normal operations. The music industry, however, is in for a long haul struggle. 

Festivals asked attendees to keep their tickets until next year and sold support wristbands to fundraise in the short term. Bands and labels have been able to ask fans directly to buy music and merch and have released bonus material and streamed performances. But bands can’t tour right now, and concerts can only be held under very strict conditions, whether it’s the summer series approach taken by Alice, the ad hoc jazz festival held at Huset, or drive-in concerts.

What will become of local venues?

The number of people allowed to gather is being raised at regular intervals and Copenhagen venues are eyeing September with the hope of operating under normal conditions, but permissions for music venues and night clubs are still unclear.

The only thing we know right now is that we are in the Phase 4 opening,” says Ditte Sig Kramer, Head of Communications for Vega. “We don’t know what that means, basically.” 

Vega, which includes Store Vega, Lille Vega, and Ideal Bar, is trying to rebook concerts at three different room capacities without clear guidance on what those limits will be. Early drafts from the Minister of Culture have suggested standing room capacity for a concert will be about 10% of the norm, and seated capacity at 40%.

“In Store Vega, it means we would be able to accommodate 160 people,” says Kramer. “Usually we sell 1550 tickets. It’s the same in our smaller venues, in Lille Vega and Ideal Bar. It’s not the final draft we have seen, but basically, this is what we know right now. We’re not able to go through with one out of ten. It means we would have the same concert ten times in a row for the tickets we’ve already sold for everyone to get their concert. We would lose so much money.”

Alice, though a smaller venue, is uncertain as to whether they are small enough to be allowed to operate at full capacity or if social distancing rules will limit them.

“We’ve postponed some concerts and one of these shows is already sold out,” says Steffensen. “Do we have to cancel the show because it’s too popular? Do we have to move it to a bigger venue where people can sit with some distance to each other? There’s a lot of unanswered questions in this.”

Everyone we spoke to for this article accepts the importance of meeting new health standards so that concerts can continue and be safe for everyone. But a lack of clarity on what those standards will be has made all planning very tenuous.

“Of course this situation is nobody’s fault, and we are willing to share our part in taking responsibility for health, but basically, when we are out of 2020, we will have no money left. And that’s really critical,”says Kramer. “We entered 2020 in a really good state. We sold a lot of tickets already, had a really strong program for both the spring and the fall, so it’s really frustrating that by the end of this year we will not have much money left. It’s really complicated because we’re a big business and it’s a lot of money we spend on just rent and we have a lot of employees and everything that comes with running a big venue like this. So we’re just looking into some cloudy thing right now. We don’t know what will happen.”

In early March, Vega attempted to keep their shows going while adhering to restrictions by splitting concerts into two performances so that all ticket holders could see the performances they paid for. This tactic came to an abrupt end on March 11, when the lockdown took effect between sets. Big Thief, the band performing that night, played a few songs for fans who missed out on the sidewalk outside of Store Vega.

Delayed openings and gradual reopenings

For Vanløse-based venue Stairway, the lockdown has meant not only rescheduling concerts, but rescheduling their opening night: The venue was meant to open on March 27.

“It’s a life lesson in hard work to open a venue in this time,” says Jeppe Greve who books Stairway. “We have rescheduled all of the concerts we had planned. The Danish things are going to happen in the fall, and most of the international acts that we had booked will be rescheduled for 2021.”

Stairway find themselves doing the math on venue capacities even before a single set has been played on their stage.

“It’s a weird calculation because it’s hard for us to break even if we’re going to downscale the capacity,” says Greve. “The room is not that big. It can easily fit 350 people, but it’s just a square, there’s no balcony. If we are to downscale it to 50-60 people, it’s going to be really tough to do shows financially. It still costs money just to open.”

Even as venues reopen, there is still a question of whether there will be any bands to book. Though the coronavirus seems to largely be under control in Denmark, such is not the case everywhere, and international bands are facing quarantines, reluctant tour insurers, and new capacity limits that will make it harder to turn a profit.

“A lot of these bands, especially the American bands, when they come to Europe, they play maybe 20 shows,” notes Kramer. “So everyone is trying to reschedule a whole new tour and that takes a lot of work. Right now, there’s a travel ban for Americans into Europe. We don’t know about that. It looks easier within the European countries, but still, it’s really expensive to tour and right now it’s not really possible anywhere to have concerts at a capacity where it’s financially sustainable to plan a tour. So I guess we won’t be seeing any international bands really in Denmark for the rest of the year. We can of course hope that things will turn out differently, but it’s what I expect.”

Steffensen agrees. “A lot of agencies don’t want to build up a tour,” he says. “Le Guess Who? is canceled and we have a lot of spillover from events like that in the autumn because a lot of bands build up their whole tour around a few of these festivals. I think a lot of these acts we would usually get in autumn we will simply not be offered because they will not be going on tour when a festival like that is canceled.”

Though no disrespect is meant towards local talent, the consensus is that Copenhagen venues cannot survive on booking Danish bands alone — no more than Danish bands can earn a living by only playing shows in Copenhagen. 

“We are definitely rethinking how to do shows to attract people because I don’t believe that we can just go and book a Danish act and 350 people will show up,” says Greve. “Most of the acts that we reached out to already have shows in Copenhagen because they’re rescheduled. They can’t play that many shows in Copenhagen — no Danish band can do that — especially not the type of bands that we’re looking at. If we are going to climb the ladder a bit and do big shows, then the risk is relatively high, and we really need to have steady nerves to do that. At a capacity of 350, it’s an easy calculation of how much we can spend on an artist and still make money. Especially if people are already booked for Lille Vega and Pumpehuset in the fall. Not that many Danish bands can do Pumpehuset and then do Vanløse.”

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“There’s a lot of talk in Denmark that now we have to be in solidarity with the Danish artists, we have to present more Danish music,” says Steffensen. “Well, that might be the case for a while, but definitely it shouldn’t affect our overall ambition to reflect a global world. We don’t take quite as huge a risk when we open the doors as a huge concert hall. We have that advantage that we are small but we have the disadvantage that we have a very international program and can’t recreate our profile with local acts in the same way some other venues might be able to do. It might change our profile for a while, we might not take quite as many risks with overseas bands, but we will try as good as we can to get back to that when we can.”

Vega, which dedicates about 60% of their programming to international bands, is optimistic about the short term prospects of an all-Danish program. 

“It feels like there is a golden era for Danish music at the moment. There’s so much good Danish music coming out in recent years,” says Kramer. “We can program a lot of Danish artists and we’re happy to do that, but in the long term, we will need bands. It’s in our DNA that we present more than half of our program as international. We’re located in the middle of Copenhagen and we feel like we are an international venue with of course a strong Danish profile also and with a lot of emerging artists from the Danish music scene. Right now we just want to be able to open and present a lot of Danish music and then let’s see when we have some international bands playing.”

Holding tickets for someday

If crowds are allowed to return to venues, the demand is there. Would-be concert goers are not only keeping their tickets for postponed dates but also buying them for future dates.

The good thing that we see, even though we’re closed, is that people are really buying tickets for when we announce shows for the late fall,” says Kramer. “I have a feeling that people are really eager to get out and see shows and really want to support live music.”

“We managed to keep a lot of the program just with new dates,” Steffensen says of Alice’s bookings. “In general the audience and the musicians have been very supportive and very understanding of the situation. I know everyone is kind of in the same boat and it’s the same everywhere around, but I think in terms of people just keeping their ticket for the show when it’s moved to a new date that people have been very nice and supportive.”

It’s heartening that fans of live music have been supporting the venues they love, but buying and keeping tickets isn’t necessarily enough to support live music in its current state. And if venues can only open and operate at a limited capacity, they will not be able to recover quickly. 

“At the moment, venues are bleeding,” says Greve. “I’m relatively sure that we’re going to survive this because we haven’t even opened yet. We didn’t have to rebook 50 shows. I could imagine that other venues really are having a hard time at the moment. There needs to be some kind of funding otherwise we’ll see that within a year some venues will be closed down.”

Kramer agrees that venues need more than help from fans. She cites the recent, successful campaign in the UK for a bailout of cultural spaces as a model to be followed in Denmark. “Of course the situation is not as critical as in the UK,” she says, “but we’re getting close.”

The Danish government has extended support to businesses that have been forced to close during lockdown in the form of salary compensation for employees and tax breaks among other things. But these measures assume that venues will be able to resume business as normal when they reopen — not reduce their paying guests by 60-90%. Even tourism, once considered the industry with the bleakest outlook, is slowly creeping back with popular attractions reopening and increasingly available flights. Live music faces many of the same challenges of travel and large gatherings that tourism does, but there has yet to be a specific package to support venues. Even the cobbled-together bailout of SAS features some support from the Danish government. Alice and Stairway both receive funding from the Copenhagen municipality among other sources. Vega also receives some amount of government funding, though it is not their primary source of revenue. 

Because audiences haven’t had many opportunities to see live music yet — and certainly not on a large scale — there is also the question of how people will initially feel about going to concerts indoors with large numbers of people.

“So far, it’s not so much a question of if we will come through this urgent crisis,” says Steffensen “but of course the big question is how will it affect the industry we work with, how will it affect the pattern of the audience and how they will go to shows in the future? I think it will have a long-term effect that we simply cannot predict at the moment. In a strange way I think we might have an advantage as a smaller venue. I think people maybe will start to look more for small scale events. But of course all of this is pure speculation. But we can see that people are definitely waiting and they’re happy to have something to look forward to, so I don’t think that people will stop appreciating going to a concert.”

Copenhangen music venue Alice during their summer concert series during the coronavirus lockdown.
Seated gig-goers, clear signposting, and a picket fence to protect the stage at Alice’s summer series.

How venues proceed will be determined by what’s allowed come September, but the consensus is that bands and venues cannot return to booking and promoting shows as they  were as recently as early March.

“I hope inside of Europe there will be a focus on a bit more of a sustainable way of touring,” says Steffensen. “There is a growing awareness that has been bigger with the corona situation that we have to think of this in a different way. Because we present music from Africa, from Asia, many other places, flying will of course still be an integrated part of the touring industry, and we have to deal with that in some way or another. It’s definitely very important for us that we can still present music from these parts of the world.”

Kramer, however, notes that while the coronavirus has rightly been the focus of public policy the last few months, it has drawn attention away from another looming crisis: Brexit.

“We don’t talk so much about it right now because of corona, but the situation is that from January 1 if they don’t find a solution or negotiate some deal, then it will be really, really difficult for the British bands to come play in the rest of Europe,” she says. “If the situation is that you need to have a visa, it gets complicated and for smaller bands who don’t have the money to get these visas, there will be a lot of bands we will not be able to see here. That’s also a problem in the ecosystem of international bands touring in Europe. It doesn’t have that much focus right now, but January 1 is coming very soon.”

How concert goers can help

While much of the future of live music in Copenhagen relies on a contained epidemic and the attention of politicians, regular gig-goers can also support the spaces they love. Everyone we spoke with agrees that keeping tickets purchased for shows that have been postponed is a huge help, as is buying tickets for upcoming gigs. Alice has their membership program and an online shop selling t-shirts and old gig posters, Vega also has merch for sale, and Loppen has launched a GoFundMe campaign to help fill gaps. But everyone we spoke to sees more public-facing, community-oriented solutions as part of venues’ long term health and survival.

There’s of course buying tickets, that is the main thing because it tells us that there is a crowd when we open up again that will come and visit,” says Kramer. “But also, speak out that venues and festivals are important to people’s everyday lives. It’s not just granted that Vega or other venues important venues in Copenhagen and the rest of Denmark are there. Speak out to politicians that venues are important to you and your everyday life.”

Greve understands how gigs and show spaces are an important part of daily life; much of Stairway’s strategy for their planned opening September 3 centers around working with existing communities.

“We’re here to do stuff with people in Copenhagen and we’re really interested in working together with different groups of people who want to do shows,” he says. “It’s the way that we’re doing shows at Underværket. We’re really getting in connection with groups that wouldn’t necessarily attend a show. It’s a bit unconventional for venues to do it that way, but to us it makes a lot of sense to work not only with agencies but also with small DIY groups who are interested in music and culture in general, because they usually are super well organized and they’re really having a lot of knowledge about certain genres and which bands to book.”

Steffensen agrees that people need to be constantly reminded of the value of music and venues, especially after having a break from them. “I think it’s super important that we keep on talking about the importance of this,” he says. He also feels that using a community to spread the word about a venue can be as valuable as buying a ticket.

“As soon as things open up, it’s cool if you buy a ticket for a show, but maybe also think about it as a present for another person,” he says. “Give them a present of live music, not only because of the money we get from it but also it’s a great way to get new people to discover a place like this. I still think Alice is a quite unknown place in Copenhagen, even for people who would theoretically be interested in the music profile, people who go to Roskilde and hear an African group or some experimental music there. 

“The support of actual music fans who talk to their friends about music is a better way to reach new people,” he continues. “In the future, we will need all the support we can get from that. I really hope that when venues like Alice can reopen that people will remember to stay curious about discovering new artists. It’s not so difficult to sell tickets to a Thurston Moore show but there are a lot of other shows that are very difficult to sell tickets to and we still think it’s super important that we keep doing these kinds of shows because that’s a part of why a place like Alice needs to be in Copenhagen. People stay curious and I think that’s the best thing to do. And they can support us, but I think they will find they can also give themselves an unexpected present.”

LIVE REVIEW: Moor Mother, Alice, 21.02.2020

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moor mother live at alice in copenhagen

Photos by Amanda Farah

It’s been close to a whole three years since the last time we caught up with Moor Mother, Camae Ayewa’s solo noise and spoken word project. In the meantime Ayewa has been keeping busy, releasing records with Irreversible Entanglements, ZONAL, and last year’s Moor Mother release, Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes. One thing that has very noticeably changed in the intervening years is the size of the crowd, which has doubled since that night in 2017.

The sonic pallet is still dark, twisted and pained, opening on a distorted, bassy synth drone, and accompanied a lonely, skittish violin. Ayewa’s vocals are low and urgent, more declamatory than rhythmic. “After Images” breaks into a martial kick drum, and marks the tension point between the punk confrontational part of Moor Mother and the gothic, reflective part.

Samples are also an integral part of Ayewa’s music, but they aren’t used in the looping manner of hiphop or techno. Instead the voices of the likes of Paul Robeson appear as ghostly presences that sit uncomfortably next to the noise. They could appear almost nostalgic next to the apocalyptic cacophony, if it weren’t for the obvious histories from which they speak.

The emphasis on time having stopped, of time being “held captive”, is embodied in those clips from spirituals and blues, and appears to situate Moor Mother very much in the Afro-goth tradition outlined by Leila Taylor in Darkly: Black History and America’s Gothic Soul.

But as mentioned above, there’s also a great physicality to Ayewa’s performance. Towards the end of the set she disappears into the crowd, purposefully stumbling into people, tying the crowd up in her mic cables. But that confrontational side is also tempered by empathy, a quick “are you ok?” as soon as the track draws to an end.

As if to disprove any assertions of bleak pessimism, Ayewa ends the evening by completely turning face, with a very short impromptu DJ set. Something like an exorcism at the end of this industrial séance.

LIVE REVIEW: Beak>, Loppen, 02.02.2020

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Geoff Barrow and Beak> live at Loppen Copenhagen

Photos by Amanda Farah

Bristol-based, kraut-rock-revivalists Beak> have finally shipped to Copenhagen, which means Loppen is heaving on a Sunday night. Lead by Geoff Barrow (him off Portishead), Beak> combine synths, bass and drums to create occult floor-stompers, pub psych and giallo-inspired soundtracks, sounding at times like Goblin after a really hard night out, at others like Tangerine Dream on a very tight budget.

What at first looks like a huge row of amplifiers turns out to be a light display, in equal measures trippy and tongue-in-cheek, as befits the three men on stage. Opening with “The Brazilian”, with its detuned synths and mastodontic descending bassline, we are projected into a 70s Italian crime movie, before settling into the hypnotic groove of “Brean Down”.

As synth player Will Young (no, not THAT one) downs a comically large can of Faxe, Barrow and bassist Billy Fuller read out negative youtube comments for their song “Eggdogg” (the highlight: “This is literally the worst combination of sounds in the history of the world”).

Beak> live at Loppen Copenhagen

In a live setting it’s much harder to separate older and newer material, since the evolution of Beak>’s latest record, 2018’s “>>>“, lay primarily in a much increased attention to production details. But the fluttering synth in “Allé Sauvage” is ever more frenetic live, and the caveman stomp of “Wulfstan II” is more brutal than ever.

Beak> really thrive in this setting, and even if their declaration that this has been their best concert in Denmark is a joke, it’s also a demand to check back in when they are next in town.

LIVE REVIEW: Richard Dawson / Burd Ellen, Alice, 31.01.2020

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richard dawson live at alice copenhagen

Photos by Amanda Farah

Brexit day must be a strange time to be touring abroad as a British musician. From most you’d expect a bit of sheepishness (even a Leaver would feel a bit out of place, surely) and despondency. But tonight Richard Dawson and support act Burd Ellen deliver a blinder that breaks through the shackles of the present.

It’s a sold-out night at Alice, with a good proportion showing up early for Burd Ellen, in no small part buoyed by their set at Fanø Free Folk Festival last summer. The Scottish goth folk duo expand on their traditional repertoire with samplers, fiddles and DIY (and very literal) sound-sculptures. Gail Brogan (also of Pefkin) adds the eery backdrop for vocalist Debbie Armour’s fantastic voice, nowhere more clear and wrenching than in their rendition “Sweet Lemany”.

burd ellen live at alice copenhagen

Richard Dawson’s uniquely brutal fingerpicking guitar style and darkly funny lyrics have steadily gained him a substantial following since the release of his breakthrough album, Nothing Important. Since then the Newcastle-based folk singer has released a more acoustic-leaning concept album set in Northumberland after the retreat of the Roman Empire, as well as his latest record, 2020.

This is Dawson’s first concert in Denmark, so we can’t make any direct comparisons to his performances before he “went electric”, but the tracks from 2020 demonstrate a new rhythmic urgency. Accompanied by drums and bass, opener “Civil Servant” is a fuzzed-out song of complaint from the titular character, skipping work to avoid having to explain to “another poor soul/ why it is their Disability Living Allowance will be stopping shortly.”

Bleakness is everywhere in Dawson’s work, which means every little joke counts just that bit more. There is an audible chuckle at the mention of “the man in the vape shop” in “The Queen’s Head”, but the climactic moment comes with “Jogging”, starting with its Stooges-esque caveman stomp. This is Dawson at his emotionally complex core, a tale of someone suffering from anxiety who takes up jogging as a way to cope. The catharsis of the chorus matches musical euphoria with gnawing doubt: “I know I must be paranoid / but I feel the atmosphere / round here getting nastier.” The jogging might work, but that doesn’t stop the place from getting worse.

It’s a lyrical downer but physically exhilarating, and without doubt one of the best sets Alice has hosted in its two-year history. We’ll be needing a lot more Richard Dawson in the years to come.

Albums of the Year 2019

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Image result for cate le bon reward

Cate Le Bon
Reward

Having strayed from her signature guitar style into more textural, synth-based compositions, Cate Le Bon has found new ways to highlight her cool voice. Mostly down-tempo, occasionally punctuated by brass instruments, it’s a different approach but continues Le Bon’s quirky inclinations. We’re not entirely sure why this album is the album that made the world realize how wonderful she is, but are glad everyone else has caught up. 

Image result for kim gordon no home record

Kim Gordon
No Home Record

On her long-awaited solo debut, Kim Gordon taps into the Sonic Youth-style alt-rock that she built her career on. A little left-field but still catchy, Gordon calls on strong rhythms, whispered and raspy vocal deliveries, and a broader range of dynamics than much of her recent work. But when she does lean into the noise she’s so well versed in, it takes on weirdly soothing, meditative qualities.

Image result for lizzo cuz i love you album cover

Lizzo
Cuz I Love You

It was a good year for albums about the end of the world. But if you wanted an album that actually made you feel good about yourself, Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You was it. This was the album for Lizzo to lean fully into being a pop singer, and the result is full of celebration and killer hooks. Whether she’s telling a boy off, contemplating running the world, or just feeling herself for being fabulous, Lizzo’s party is the party we want to go to.

Image result for alexander tucker guild of the asbestos weaver

Alexander Tucker
Guild of the Asbestos Weaver

Anyone familiar with Tucker’s work as Grumbling Fur (together with Daniel O’Sullivan) will instantly recognise his signature kitchen-sink-sci-fi. On opener “Energy Alphas” a warm, buzzy bass drone weaves around Tucker’s plain-but-sweet chants and hissing drum machines. Formally minimalist but rich in texture (particularly with the treated strings that appear throughout the rest of the record), Guild of the Asbestos Weaver is a beautifully enigmatic haven.

Image result for jenny hval the practice of love

Jenny Hval
The Practice of Love

Jenny Hval’s latest work still features her airy, laid-back vocals and meditative synth-pop, but these are brought into a more conversational setting, juxtaposed with spoken word sections and snippets of interviews with other female artists. “High Alice” and “Ashes to Ashes” have that late night mixture of elation and anxiety previously found in “Female Vampire”, but the central and eponymous track somehow manages to achieve a similar effect by layering voices speaking over and against and through each other.

Image may contain: mountain, sky, outdoor and nature

Fat White Family
Serfs Up!

The excesses and controversies of the Family have always overshadowed their music, but since moving out of London and playing in several off-shoot bands, they are back armed with cartloads of bangers. Opener “Feet” is pure Pet Shop Boy histrionic dance anthem with a pounding synth line and a string section, whereas “Tastes Good With the Money” shows a lighter side, with a glam stomp and Baxter Dury channelling a cockney Serge Gainsburg.

Image result for aldous harding designer

Aldous Harding
Designer

If you listen to Designer distractedly it might simply come across as pleasant, but if you have ever seen Aldous Harding play live you’ll know there is a taught energy undercutting all her work. Wide open eyes, a twitch at the edges of the mouth, something off-kilter with the laid-back vocals. You can hear it in the broken shuffle of “Designer”, and in the quiet background noises of “Damn”.

Big Thief
U.F.O.F

The first of Big Thief’s ambitious two-album release for the year, U.F.O.F. has all of the delicate qualities associated with their work. What feels significant is that frontwoman Adrienne Lenker has found a way to convey intimacy beyond fragility. Still vulnerable, but with a new sense of strength, U.F.O.F. will pull you in as close as you’ll let it.

LIVE REVIEW: Boris, Vega, 01.12.2019

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Boris live at Lille Vega Copenhagen

Photos by Amanda Farah

Boris have gained cult status with their idiosyncratic take on slow, ominous waves of distorted guitars. Having collaborated with everyone from doom lords Sunn O))) and noise king Merzbow, Boris are the kind of band you bring a spare set of earplugs when you go see them. So their opening song, “Away from You”, comes as surprise: the delicate, reverb-y guitars, tasteful drumming and breathy vocals are about as far away as you can get from noise.

But Boris have never been a band that’s easy to define. With countless albums to their name, they have slowly morphed away from chugging psych band to a more genuinely experimental outfit, borrowing with ease from shoe-gaze, abstract noise and J-pop.

The confirmation of this comes with “Coma”, second track both of the set and their latest release, LOVE & EVOL: the sense of space is still there, but this time it is tackled with their signature wall of noise. Having seen Sunn O))) about a month ago it’s interesting to see that guitarists Atsuo and Wata are employing a similar live technique to Stephen O’Malley and co, slowly gesturing each chord change in order to synchronise with the ponderous tempo.

What’s so impressive about Boris in a live setting is how the trio manage to produce so much out of two guitars and a drum kit. It helps of course that Atsuo and Wata have an endless supply of pedals and pre-amps at their disposal, Atsuo supplementing his down-tuned guitar with an extra bass neck (as if Boris are ever in need of even more low end), Wata achieving the same effect electronically.

The energetic soul of the band is drummer and vocalist Takeshi, who tonight is in full stadium-goth mode, black lipstick and head mic. Boris may be experimental, but they are also fun. They nod to their origins with a cover of the Melvins’ song that gave them their name, and close with the lush, My Bloody Valentine-inspired “Farewell”. Which proves they also have a taste for appropriate titles.

LIVE REVIEW: Sarah Louise, 18.11.2019

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sarah louise live at alice copenhagen

Photos by Amanda Farah

If your introduction to Sarah Louise was through her lush folk album Deeper Woods, or her trad Appalacian duo House and Land, you might be surprised by her current live set up: Her characteristic 12-string has been replaced by an electric, but the main elements are a sampler, synth, and pedals. On her latest release, “Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars”, she channels the cosmic music of Alice Coltrane and krautrock as she does her more traditional folk influences.

The common element throughout is Sarah Louise’s powerful voice, soaring above fingerpicked guitar and drum machines alike. The concert hall at Alice has been reduced in size by black velvet curtains, the audience huddled together at tables, and Louise’s down-to-earth presence gathers everyone together into a warm cloak against yet another wet autumn evening.

This is not Sarah Louise’s first time in Denmark, having played at Fanø Free Folk Festival in 2018 with House and Land, but it’s only fitting that this be her first trip to Copenhagen, ending the current season of Free Folk Mondays at Alice.

There is more of a DIY feel to the songs in a live settings, particularly in the charmingly unselfconscious drum presets that ring oddly beside the drones and rattles and bells. This new approach works surprisingly well with Sarah Louise’s older material as well: the sparse, electric version of “Bowman’s Root” seems to have switched seasons, from autumn to winter.

LIVE REVIEW: Church of Misery, Loppen, 22.10.2019

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church of misery live at loppen christiania, copenhagen

Photos by Amanda Farah

Japan’s seminal doom band, Church of Misery, have survived a quarter of a century and countless lineup changes (their bassist Tatsu Mikami being the only stable member) with a very simple formula: denim flares, Sabbath-worshipping stoner riffs, and songs about serial killers.

The four-piece take to the stage with little fanfare other than the standard bearing their name and logo, and from the way vocalist Hiroyuki Takano languidly introduces the band, you can tell that Church of Misery’s dedicate is exclusively to the re-creation of their most beloved music.

Take “Make Them Die Slowly” from their 2016 album And Then There Were None: that slow 4/4 kick drum, couple with the detuning at the end of the guitar riff are pure “Iron Man”, although not even Sabbath could come up with lyrics quite as gleefully tasteless as this.

church of misery live at loppen christiania, copenhagen

Church of Misery seem to aim to take things to their extremity: the most rigorously orthodox sound, the most brutal subjects possible, the most 70s flares you could imagine. Mikami’s bass is slung so low that half the time it is resting on the floor. And the end result is undeniably fun.

INTERVIEW: Peter Hvalkof from Alice talks booking and Spectacle

in Blog by

Photos by Morten Aagard Krogh

Since 2017 Alice has been the home to experimental, global and electronic music in Copenhagen, guaranteed 4 years of funding from the Arts Council and Copenhagen municipality. Half way into this project, the venue is showcasing its unique cocktail of genres this month with a two day series of concerts and talks under the banner of Spectacle.

We sat down with one half of the booking team, Peter Hvalkof, in the café of the neighbouring Union cultural center to get an idea of the work that goes into producing one of the city’s most unique cultural spaces, and to get a preview of what to expect from them in the near future.

Peter started his career in concert booking in the mid 90s working with Roskilde Festival, and by now describes himself their most senior booker. “At least I’m the one who has been there the longest!” His focus has always been on bringing acts from every part of the globe to Denmark, from Malian desert rock to Brazilian tropicalia.

His work at Alices started by way of one of its predecessors, Global. Started in 2006 in the same space now occupied by Alice, Global started out by buying bookings from Roskilde Festival. Most of these were Peter’s own bookings, which made it natural for him to team up with Global. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement: Global would be something of a scouting ground for Roskilde, and as such could attract a wider variety of acts to its own venue. “For most people it’s not just a chance to discover a new band,” Peter explains, “it’s a way to discover entire genres and cultures.” 

The delight of Roskilde Festival, and what spurred Peter to get involved in the first place, was exactly this potential for stumbling across the unknown while crossing an otherwise nondescript Danish field. We’ve experienced this ourselves in our reporting on plenty of occasions, memorably encountering the Thai band Khun Narin crossing the festival with their massive soundsystem after a set earlier in the day.

Attracting audiences to unknown bands is a much easier proposition these days of course, since even the most obscure act is only a quick search away, but you still need to earn that audience and inspire them to make that discovery. “There are so many curious people out there, who trust the programming, who instead of settling for what they already know are willing to take the risk. And for some it could be the concert of a lifetime.”

Peter Hvalkof of Alice and Roskilde Festival

“It took four years at Global to gain an audience that trusted that what we were doing was something spending the money and time on.” Of course Alice can take advantage of the same symbiotic relationship with festivals like Roskilde and the Copenhagen Jazz Festival, but that doesn’t mean it requires any less work : “we knew that when we merged Global and Jazzhouse into Alice we would have to start all over. It takes a while to build a reputation, but we are improving all the time.”

Aside from its regular audience, though, Alice has also seen shows completely sold-out by expat communities. The most notable instances recently have been Italian songwriter Vinicio Capossela and Turkish psych-star Gaye Su Akyol last autumn. Gaye, Peter is keen to point out, will be returning to Roskilde this summer. 

Between booking for Alice and Roskilde, Peter is clearly a busy man. In the last year at total of 316 acts have passed through the doors of Alice, with only a brief one-month window of reprieve in summer. The planning for Spectacle started in autumn, so with that and Roskilde booked it’s time for a short breather. Today, in fact, Peter is technically on holiday, but he has come over especially to greet the Mekons who are playing here later this evening.

We spend some time discussing the term “global music” and its older cousin “world music”, the topic in fact of one of the upcoming talks during Spectacle. “For me, when it comes to describing to someone what I do as a booker at Roskilde or Alice, at least the term ‘world music’ is something they understand.” But then what is global music? “It’s local music from ‘out there’, but that could just as easily be Jutland as Zanzibar!”

Focusing so much on acts from the most disparate parts of the world also entails a considerable amount of effort in terms of paperwork: “I spend so much time writing letters of invitation to make sure that artists from outside Europe are getting their visas.” But this is hardest on the artists themselves: in the case of one duo from Niger, this meant spending a week on the streets of Burkina Faso while applying for a Danish visa. “Then they had to spend give weeks in Accra to get their visas for Britain, can you imagine that?”

“When I travel, one thing that always makes be happy—but also a little ashamed when it comes to my culture—is the fact that whether I’m talking to an electronic producer of a metal bassist, they know so much about their own musical heritage. That’s hard to find in Danish musicians.” But certainly not impossible, since Spectacle will see—alongside international electronic and folk acts—local bands like psychedelic outfits Ipek Yolu and Klimaforandringer, as well as Copenhagen-based composers Sofie Birch and Xenia Xamanek.

“Spectacle is a way to add some more focus on what we are doing. We talked earlier about hating the term ‘world music’ and in fact we tried to avoid the world ‘festival’ too, but if you create a series of concerts and you end up naming it… well that is a festival.”

As well as being its own venue, Alice as a project reaches out into other spaces as well, from the Union Cultural Center we are currently sitting—which will house the talks that are part of Spectacle—, to the churches of Christians Kirke in Christianshavn and Brorsons Kirke in Nørrebro. There are talks of also hosting events in the neighbouring Sankt Johannes Kirke. 

Later in the summer Alice will also be home to shows from the likes of Nadah El Shazly and Girls in Airports as part of the Copenhagen Jazz Festival, and is bringing its bigger acts, such as German experimental big band Andromeda Mega Express Orchestra, to the Ofelia Plads stage in the city center. 

The Alice Spectacle will take place 26 and 27 April.

LIVE REVIEW: The Mekons, Alice, 09.04.2019

in Blog/Live Reviews by
Mekons live at Alice in Copenhagen

Looking at the Mekons tonight, you might take them for the kind of band that tours English corn exchanges covering Fairport Convention and the Stranglers. The eight of them shuffle on stage good-naturedly, and almost immediately call for gaffer tape to fix an according strap. But no, almost immediately the cover is blown.

The Mekons aren’t a bunch of nice old-timers (although in fairness they do seem lovely), they are something of a living miracle: a punk band that has survived, endured and flourished for over forty years. From the classroom punk of their 1979 debut they have explored everything from sparse post-punkEnglish folk, country and western, and reggae; they have spread from Leeds to Chicago, collaborated with Kathy Acker, and continue to produce music with humour and bite.

Tonight is ample proof of this, a mix of material from their latest album, Deserted, as well some classic Mekons barnstormers. These merge well together, not because it all sounds the same, but conversely because variety has always been an essential element of the band.

Jon Langford and Sally Tims and Tom Greenhalgh share the main vocal duties amongst themselves (one of the interesting things about the Mekons is in fact how these different voices feel so consistent across their work). The folk elements are provided by Susie Honeyman on the fiddle, Rico Bell on according and Lu Edmonds (also of The Damned and Public Image Ltd) on saz duties, while Steve Goulding (hear him in Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives”!) hits the skins.

My ears are still ringing a little from standing too close to the stage, but what is a little tinnitus compared to the one-two punch of “Ghosts of American Astronauts” and “Hard to be Human Again”?

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