REVIEW: Susanna at the Vortex

Susanna Wallumrød, Helge Sten, Fredrik Wallumrød
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2014. All Rights Reserved

(Vortex, 12 August 2014. Review and drawing by Geoff Winston.)

The intimacy of the Vortex brought out the best in Norwegian singer Susanna Wallumrød’s trio. They were performing as part of the venue’s ‘Trio Trip’ season. An affecting, dream-like sadness pervades her repertoire – which she only half-jokingly described as ‘Norwegian gloom’ – and characterises her underlying artistic strengths as both performer and songsmith.

Whether self-penned, or songs she fondly picks out as ‘faves’, in the perfectly attuned company of her partner, Helge Sten on guitar (of Supersilent, and aka Deathprod) and her brother, percussionist Fredrik Wallumrød, she imposed a formidably assured imprint on a set which stretched back to the first of her ten albums, and included heartfelt covers of 70s and 80s gems, and extracts from her poetry and song collaborations with fellow Norwegians.

Susanna first set out her stall in 2004 with the ever-committed left field Rune Grammofon label, where Sten is a key producer. More recently she has initiated her own Susanna Sonata label on which she has just released her haunting duo album with Jenny Hval, Meshes of Voices, and Sten’s album with John Paul Jones, Cloud to Ground (under the moniker, Minibus Pimps), as well as her own acclaimed The Forester album.

There was an appealing simplicity to the way she blended her vocal and piano delivery that allowed the clarity of her vision to surface. She imposed an additional layer of vocal richness on songs such as Her Eyes and Oh, I am Stuck from the Wild Dog album, and the evergreen Jailbreak, which she imbued with the desolate quality of Springsteen at his bleakest. Her carefully crafted keyboard style was carried off with a natural confidence to highlight the emotional and melodic interplay in the songs.

Sten added gently atmospheric undercurrents, floating chimes and slices of echoing, spatial intensity to underpin subtle turns in direction, and picked his moments to offer bright counterpoints of shimmering tension. Fredrik was the model of supportive restraint, utilising the soft mallets and brushes to build up the undertow with Sten, and his gentle vocal harmonies complemented the strength of Susanna’s distinctive voice with a natural ease.

The trio’s uniquely moving handling of Love Will Tear Us Apart eschewed Joy Division’s driving rhythms, to get under the skin of the lyrics and melody with slow deliberation to reveal the heart-rending poignancy at its core. This was matched for emotional intensity by their rendition of Dolly Parton’s Jolene, in a strenuously demanded encore, where it seemed that a knife was being dragged through every word to bring out the bitter twists of its desperate narrative.

Support was ably provided by Matt Stevens with a set of layered guitar excursions that interposed Spanish and folk with power chords and the edgy tones associated with John Martyn’s explorations.

The concert was a special highlight in Dalston’s summer, and the Vortex and its typically rapt audience clearly delighted Susanna. As she said, paying us a compliment: ‘It’s wonderful to play for you – listening!’

Susanna Wallumrød: vocals, piano
Helge Sten: guitar, electronics
Fredrik Wallumrød: drums

Categories: miscellaneous

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