By BRUCE DENNILL
A-ha: Hunting High And Low Tour / Marks Park, Emmarentia, Johannesburg
With a line-up of four support acts – Werner Bekker, James Deacon, Absinthe and Ard Matthews – the return of Norwegian pop megaliths A-ha to Johannesburg became an enjoyable half-day outdoor festival, slick and well-run but for the food queues at food trucks during the supper-time peak period (an extra staff member wouldn’t go amiss, vendors). Of the warm-up artist, the best was arguably on first, with Bekker impressing both for his elegant percussive guitar playing and intriguing tunings and keys and his immediately appealing melodies. Deacon, with his big soul voice, booming programmed beats and fluid rapping, will have won a number of new converts to his cause too.
A-ha, when they arrive on stage with the dusk falling and giving the stage’s strong lighting design more impact, are not effusive or showy. Easy, fluid stage presence and Scandinavian sophistication are abetted by the durable good looks of singer Morten Harket (girls still swoon, even though he’s in his early sixties now) and keys player Magne Furuholmen.
The concept of this tour involves the trio, backed by another keys player, a bassist and the sublime drumming of Karl Oluf Wennerberg, playing through their debut album Hunting High And Low – now 35 years old – from start to finish. For Harket, this involves the considerable challenge of singing the song that made the band stars around the world, Take On Me, right up front, including the famously high note at the end of its catchy chorus. Credit where it’s due: Harket visibly focuses and goes for it, relying more on his falsetto than he used to but nevertheless ensuring that the cynics in the audience have nothing to hang their gripes on.
The full-album setlist section is wonderful from a nostalgic point of view, but the visceral impact of the big hits – Take On Me, Hunting High And Low and The Sun Always Shines On TV – do show up the relative filler status of many of the other songs. It’s part of the challenge so-called heritage bands face: can they expect their audience to be the same people who bought the album in 1985, and if they can, do the deep cuts mean as much to listeners as they do to the band? Whatever the case, each track is performed with style and vigour, and the album’s significant legacy receives its appropriate due.
The second part of the show, in terms of inclusion of big hits, is similarly variable, with songs such as Sycamore Leaves and The Swing Of Things being preferred to crowd favourites Cry Wolf, Crying In The Rain and Touchy (among many others). Again, there is little bearing on the effectiveness of the show – Harket is magnetic; Furuholmen is cheerfully engaging and guitarist Pal Waaktaar-Savoy colours every space with sensitive licks and rhythms on a succession of gorgeous guitars – but emotional highs are scattered.
One of these, the band’s excellent Bond theme The Living Daylights, makes a clear statement regarding its quality a few days after Billie Eilish’s effort for the next Bond film was released. Time will tell, but the latter doesn’t obviously have the punch of A-ha’s contribution. And that is the lasting impression of this concert: this is a band whose catalogue has aged brilliantly, and whose hits remain among the musical high points in their or any genre.