October 28, 2019
Islington Assembly Hall, London
As an award-winning multi-instrumentalist and producer in the burgeoning UK Americana scene, it may surprise you to know that Thomas Collison doesn’t like much music! A band really has to be something special to entice him. That’s why we have no choice but to take notice when he describes Madrugada as ‘the best band you’ve never heard of.’
Having been a fan for the majority of the group’s 20 year history, here is Collison’s informed and impassioned review of his first ever Madrugada concert; something he never thought he’d get a chance to see after the band split up in 2008.
A crisp autumnal evening welcomed Madrugada back to London to play their first UK show in 13 years. The 800 capacity Islington Assembly Hall sold out three months prior to the concert date, and was a substantial venue upgrade compared to their 2006 show at Dingwalls in Camden. However, for a sense of scale, this alt-rock band are no stranger to playing multiple sold-out nights at arenas in their native Norway and across mainland Europe.
Formed in 1993 on a remote island town off the northern coast of Norway with a population of under 4,000, Abbey’s Adoption consisted of Sivert Høyem (vocals), Frode Jacobson (bass) and Jon Lauvland Pettersen (drums). The trio relocated to Oslo in 1995, changed their name to Madrugada and finalised their line-up with the addition of guitarist Robert Burås.
The band released four highly acclaimed studio albums and a live record between 1999 and 2005. Each topped the Norwegian charts and reached the Top Ten in other European countries. Earning critical as well as commercial success, they won five Spellemannprisen awards (the Norwegian Grammys).
During the recording of their fifth album in 2007, after Pettersen’s amicable departure in 2002, Burås sadly passed away. Høyem and Jacobsen completed the self-titled record in Burås’ memory with the assistance of mutual friends and associates. Following the release of the eponymous album in January 2008, Madrugada embarked on a farewell tour before disbanding.
After such a long time, fans were equally surprised and delighted to discover that the band were going back on tour; even more so when it was announced that founding member Pettersen would be re-joining the lineup after 18 years.
Following an initial pair of concerts in February 2019 to over 17,000 fans in Oslo, the band embarked on a 60 date tour to mark the twentieth anniversary of their debut album, Industrial Silence.
There was a sense of electricity in the air as the lucky fans who got tickets to the only UK date on the tour waited for Madrugada’s triumphant return, passing the time by swapping stories of previous concerts and favourite tracks.
The concert started with the album opener Vocal. As the band took their places and launched a salvo of dark grooves, Sivert Høyem emerged from the darkness brandishing a tambourine like a weapon. He unleashed his rich baritone, reminiscent of Messrs Cohen, Vedder and Cave.
Intimately familiar with the nuance of every song, he directed his band mates with almost imperceptible looks and echoed their dynamic with movement and gesture; all part of Høyem’s seasoned frontman persona.
As for the sound; imagine the house band in Twin Peaks’ Roadhouse bar playing a mashup of Pink Floyd’s Breathe with Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game and you’ll get the musical cues for both the first song and the overall sonic aesthetic of Madrugada. They create brooding music fit to soundtrack desolate places; essentially ‘Scandi Noir’ before that concept had a name.
While the main set was designed to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the band’s seminal Industrial Silence record by performing it in its entirety, it was intriguing and exciting to see how they resequenced the tracklisting to create a dynamic, undulating live experience.
The band rocked hard as they traversed through dark lyrical environments in Belladona, Higher and Sirens before Høyem – a man of few words – finally addressed the audience. Until then, guitarist Cato ‘Salsa’ Thomassen added colour to the performance and made a clear visual statement with his expressive playing. A stalwart of Høyem’s solo band as well as Madrugada itself, having joined the group in 2008 to fill the sizeable void left by tragedy, the ‘new boy’ ably did justice to Burås’ legacy while also carving out his own place in the band.
Another veteran of Sivert Høyem’s solo band, Christer Knutsen expertly multitasked between organ, harmonica, backing vocals, electric and lap steel guitars – sometimes on the same song! His involvement in the reformed group added the subtle complexity and depth found in the studio recordings.
The ‘alt-country’ of songs such as Shine and This Old House gave a sense that, in a parallel world, Madrugada would be darlings of what is now known as the Americana scene, although that would be missing the point. Madrugada is a band that doesn’t require labels or associations; this is a group that simply makes damn fine music and transcends genre.
Simultaneously foregrounding the swirling music and adding to the sense of spectacle, Høyem highlighted the band’s signature song, Strange Colour Blue, by swapping his acoustic guitar with a torch. Listening in near darkness, other than the sweeping search light, really allowed for a focus on the lyrics which were interpolated with passages of Bruce Springsteen’s State Trooper.
At any other theatre show, that would have been the most memorable visual moment but with half a lifetime’s experience of performance, Høyem had something even more impressive up his sleeve for Norwegain Hammer Works Corp. As if mirroring the venue’s disco ball, Høyem donned a silver sequined jacket. With white light targeted on to his torso, he appeared to be on the brink of supernova as he emitted shards of light around the auditorium.
His stream of conscious lyrics, channelling R.E.M.’s more introspective songs from Out of Time, were paired with heavy Slint-esque riffs. In time to the dramatic music, Høyem tore off his jacket, dropped to his knees and repeated the mantra ‘with the hands of love’ while smashing the mic stand to the floor then contorting his 6 foot frame into ball. We have witnessed a masterclass in showmanship.
With these simple but effective touches, alongside a dynamic light show and graphics projected on the stage wall, Madrugada and their crew expertly brought the spectacle of an arena show to the smaller stage. Twenty years on, as fans begin reaching the point that seated tickets are considered desirable rather than disappointing, the visuals meant it was an equal pleasure to watch the show seated from the balcony as compared to the immediacy of standing in the circle below.
After breakout single Beautyproof, Høyem swiftly crouched down before cracking a smile and sheepishly explaining “sorry, I just had to retrieve my wedding ring” which had gone flying during his intense performance!
He acknowledged that finding the ring when he did was “fitting, because this next song is about getting things back with the ones you love.” Quite Emotional started a trio of ballads. Like on the record, they were unconventional love songs with a 2:00 a.m. vibe. Terraplane was a meditative spiritual, highlighted by Høyem vocally channelling Nina Simone. He sat on the drum riser during Knutsen’s jazz piano solo, which was underpinned by Thomassen’s Link Wray reverb accents.
The 6/8 time ballad Electric, which closed the Industrial Silence set, was considered representative of the album. Høyem explained “We are going to play you now the first decent song we ever wrote.We liked to work at night. We thought it was such a miracle, we turned off the lights and played our first decent song to the night.” He set the scene about how recording in an industrial space, overlooking the lights of Oslo, created the concept and guiding principle of ‘industrial silence.’
The encore – or, as Høyem described it “the ritual of walking off stage and getting back on again” – was a chance to showcase deep cuts and fan favourites from the band’s other records.
Black Mambo was the first track from Madrugada’s darker sophomore release, The Nightly Disease. Jacobsen’s bass guitar struck up the voodoo riff then the band gradually joined in on this slow builder. The intensity grew with each cycle, layered up with hypnotic drums, slide and scraped guitar, plus devilishly unsettling falsetto harmonies and Tubular Bell from Knutsen. This swampy blues meditation was evocative of Dr. John and Let Love In era Bad Seeds to match the disturbing lyrics: “Don’t let them catch you out here on the streets because you’ve got no soul.”
From the same album came Hands Up – I Love You, which was replete with a pulsating bass and drum groove, laying host to sparse guitar and organ accompaniment. This was the band’s first #1 single in Norway in March 2001. Our Scandinavian neighbours were clearly streets ahead in the cool stakes; at that time, UK record buyers sent Shaggy’s It Wasn’t Me to the number one spot, ending Whole Again by Atomic Kitten’s reign of terror!
Next up was What’s On Your Mind?, a sumptuous gothic noir tale of losing love taken from the band’s final album. As with many songs in Madrugada’s catalogue, it sounds like you’ve always known it from the soundtrack of a David Lynch movie. Considering their extended absence and having not officially released or toured the record in the UK, it was remarkable that the audience sung along in unison with conviction throughout.
With stage lights down, Knutsen’s Hammond organ swelled into Majesty from 2002’s Grit. The album was released in the UK in a drastically altered manner as part of a compilation incorporating tracks from the previous two records and cuts from the third. This slow burning ballad of regret and love lost started out like the studio version then seamlessly morphed into the epic reading from 2005’s Live at Tralfamdore. The emotive interplay of organ and guitar solos while the Assembly Hall’s mirrorball radiated golden light was a spine-tingling experience.
The encore continued with The Kids Are On High Street, the lead single from 2004’s The Deep End, which propelled the band to further critical and commercial acclaim in Europe. This rousing live staple is an anthem of will and determination to leave your humble beginnings and make your mark on the world, viewed through the eyes of experience of a band that moved from the sticks to the city and found success: “They take your photograph/You come into existence/You realize it’s your path/In this very instant.”
It was a fine slice of alt-rock, reminiscent of R.E.M. and Pearl Jam. Thomassen and Knutsen’s guitars took centre stage, paying tribute to the spirit of Burås. Meanwhile, Høyem made his way in to the photo pit, clasping hands with fans in the front rows before propelling himself into the audience for the remainder of the song, all without missing a beat. The rush to shake hands and thank their hero, with a singalong continuing unabated, was a palpable indicator of how beloved this band remains to its dedicated fan base.
After two intense hours, the show ended with Valley of Deception, a soulful waltzing spiritual taken from the band’s last album. As the final notes rang out and the band took their bows to a standing ovation, their crew ingeniously segued playback of Elvis Presley’s Peace In The Valley, a similarly paced ‘valley’ track acting like a sequel to Madrugada’s song.
As the band departed the stage, Høyem made it clear that they will be back. Thankfully you now have time to get acquainted with their back catalogue and maybe, just maybe, discover a new favourite band.
Here’s the setlist, with the tracklisting as it appears on the album Industrial Silence noted in parenthesis, plus a Spotify playlist of the recorded versions of the songs.
This Old House (7)
Strange Colour Blue (6) / State Trooper
Norwegian Hammerworks Corp. (11)
Quite Emotional (12)
Hands Up – I Love You
What’s On Your Mind?
The Kids Are On High Street
Valley of Deception
Follow me for more reviews, news and photos!