Sver: epic Nordic folk music

Swedish rhythm machine rocks Scandinavian traditional music in Oregon tour

by DANIEL HEILA

In the front row of Corvallis’s Majestic Theater a flock of fidgety youths — a posse of sjörå on shore leave — hoot and whistle as the string-driven, Swedish rhythm machine Sver cranks out a rousing set of relentless syncopated hooks, exhilarating drops, and odd-metered rollicks. Anders Hall, the band’s fiddle/viola player, prowls the stage (a naughty can of chaw in his front pocket, latent horns pushing against the taut skin of his shaven head), his compact form slightly curved forward, almost as if he is embracing the spirit of this epic music. An old-world strömkarl, he’s here with his partners-in-pulse to enthrall the audience with hypnotic fiddling. And if revelers ask real nice, he’ll teach them how to play…

And that has a lot to do with why he and his bandmates — Olav Luksengård Mjelva on fiddle and Hardanger fiddle, Leif Ingvar Ranøien on two-row accordion, Adam Johansson on guitar, and Jens Linell on drums — are here in exotic Corvallis, Oregon, spreading the happy infection of their rockin’ take on Nordic folk music.

Swedish folk rockers Sver performed at Corvallis’s Majestic Theater. Photo: Daniel Heila.

Back in 2015, the band was in residence at the Alasdair Fraser Sierra Fiddle Camp in Nevada City, California, and so was Cayley Schmid, fiddler with Americana band Polecat, who attended the bands’ workshops and concerts. “I think Sver embodies a perfect combination of reverence for creativity, and musical playfulness,” she says.

A year earlier, Schmid had started the Bellingham Folk Festival winter weekend of folk music workshops and performances for festies of all ages and abilities. Schmid, the festival’s de facto director/booker/volunteer coordinator, realized it would be her dream booking if the Swedes performed in Bellingham. With a decade of touring experience with Polecat, she wound up booking half the shows of SVER’s first US tour in 2018. A successful run of gigs culminated in an appearance at the Bellingham festival and a promise from the Swedes to return.

That promise became reality when Schmid booked a fourteen-show Pacific Northwest tour (from Northern California to Vancouver, BC) in January 2019, with the Majestic Theater show in Corvallis smack dab in the middle of a run from Ashland to Astoria and on to Portland’s Alberta Rose Theater.

A fiddler in the Irish and Scottish traditions for most of her life, Schmid fell for the irresistible buzz and hum of Sver’s music. “They create a sound that is bigger than the sum of its parts,” she explains.

The steely resonant voice of the Hardanger fiddle (thinner wood, lighter bowed strings, and resonant under-neck strings) is produced by bowing two or three strings at once to create a drone that accompanies the melody. Syncopated, permuted rhythmic phrases that cross bar lines disrupt any sense of a regular downbeat, while the lighter, bouncier bowing of the fiddles and the breathy reeds of the diatonic accordion create a floating harmonic center that shimmers like a river shoal. Listening to any given Sver piece is like being submerged in a perpetually flowing musical now that exists within and without the music like a spiritual landscape of trad music.

“The virtuosity of their music pulls you in, and the range of feels and energy they provide keeps you hooked,” Schmid says. “There aren’t many bands that make me want to dance in a frenzy, then make me feel desperately nostalgic, then [back to] a joyous party time again!”

Sver at the Majestic. Photo: Daniel Heila.

Sver opened the Corvallis show with the title song of their 2015 album Fryd. Launching with short, brutal unison hits, it soars into a crippled symmetry of doubled fiddles, driving hand-hit drum set, and long, sensual ramp-ups to exhilarating top-of-the-tune returns. The art of the drop (eat your heart out dubstep).

The band’s multi-metered arrangements (3 beats against 2, etc.) kept the audience guessing with permuted accents that obscure time signatures but maintain a foot stomping momentum that makes it difficult to remain in one’s seat. The set-closing “Mysoxen” had another infectious, tutti, rhythmic hook reminiscent of Jackson 5’s “ABC.” Out in the lobby, the boys from Scandinavia, as at home in the fanscape as they are on stage, pressed the flesh, signed CDs, and drank craft beer with the locals.

The second set opened with a two-tune barn burner with a scorching button-box solo. Next up, the alternately swaggering and slithering, mid tempo “Lassi” (from their latest CD Reverie) scratched a bluesy rosin from the frayed bows (Hall biting the broken strings from his). More akin to the adventurous arrangements of Väsen, it offered a dark grittiness that the band’s relentlessly peppy sound could use more of. Give us some of that midwinter, piney-woods despair, we can take it. Next, “Squeezer” (a squeezer is a typically awkward Swedish hug) featured a hilarious, bone-dry stand up routine by guitarist Adam Johansson and a delightful, which-way-waltz with accordionist Leif Ingvar Ranøien while the fiddlers’ bows, playing a stick-and-wheel game, nudged and prodded the free wheeling tune along.

Johansson avoided the dumb-as-stumps, thwacka-thwacka acoustic guitar accompaniment that plagues so many string-band efforts, instead thickening the brew throughout the evening with inventive chord inversions and fills across the fretboard. Drummer Jens Linell, smacking the skins and slapping the cymbals with his deft, bare hands, worked tightly with the rest of the band to hold tunes in limbo, like leaves on a stream eddy, only to send them, boom!, over the falls into the rapids pell-mell. The evening’s concluding tune defeated the fans’ ham-fisted unison clapping with its brutally correct syncopation (off-beat accents). Nevertheless, good sports all, the audience leapt to their feet with an ovation at the end.

Sver with Natalie Haas, Alasdair Fraser, and Polecat at the Wild Buffalo in Bellingham. Photo: Kenneth Kearney Photography.

After several shows in Oregon, Washington, and Vancouver, BC, the band rested up at Schmid’s house before the last concert of the tour in Bellingham. “They drank a lot of IPA and we watched Jeopardy,” says Schmid of her guests. At the Wild Buffalo in Bellingham, the band was joined by none other than the great Scottish fiddle and cello duo Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas (who happened to be in the area touring), as well as Schmid and Polecat bandmates Aaron Guest and Jeremy Elliott. It was a true coming together of traditions: the ancient Scottish and Nordic, and the new, burgeoning Pacific Northwest string band scene. Lucky for Northwest folk-music fans, Schmid and Sver are working on a September 2019 tour (more info: bellinghamfolkfestival@gmail.com), so these “fantastic, hilarious, and gracious human beings” will be in the neighborhood again, spreading the Nordic buzz.

Corvallis’s 105-year-old Majestic Theater, which started life as a vaudeville venue, has been owned by the City of Corvallis since 1985 after a successful purchasing effort at the behest of the community, then renovated into a lively, warm, attractive space complete with comfortable foyer and concession stand. The Majestic is experiencing a surge of interest and new energy with new staff and revamped programs. With the booking of Sver, the venue reflects the Northwest’s growing interest in Scandinavian music, evidenced by recent regional appearances by artists such as Nordic Fiddlers Bloc, Aallotar, Sara Pajunen, VäsenArto and Antti Järvelä and, coming February 28, saxophonist and vocalist Juli Wood‘s smooth jazz arrangements of classic Finnish folk songs at Portland’s Nordia House.

Daniel Heila plays flute, writes music, and loves words in Eugene.

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