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Originally Published August18, 2004
The Notodden Blues Festival
North To Notodden
Does It Get Better Than This?
By Art Tipaldi
As European festivals go, the Notodden Blues Festival, a 17-year veteran, is an experience American Blues fans should not miss. Held four days in early August, the festival turns the tiny Norwegian city of Notodden, population 12,000, into a cosmopolitan Blues center of Europe, drawing over 30,000 fans from all corners of the Blues world.
For these days, the entire city becomes a Blues world. Everybody from children to senior citizens walks the streets wearing Blues garb and singing Blues tunes. The local beer gardens are all playing Blues over the loud speakers and cars drive through the town blaring Blues, not Rap, from their systems. And where else can you go to the public library and be greeted by the librarians wearing Blues festival T-shirts?
Each year’s lineup reflects a broad-minded, diverse musical philosophy. For Blues fans, the roster of performers reads like a who’s who of the W.C. Handy Awards. Past festivals have showcased B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Little Milton, Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers, Taj Mahal, Wilson Pickett, Charlie Musselwhite, Rory Block, Keb’ Mo’, Gatemouth Brown, Shemekia Copeland, and others.
That makes the festival run so efficiently is the huge network of 600 volunteers. Volunteers lug stages and sound systemhis year’s festival headlined Blues giants like Kim Wilson, Rod Piazza, John Mayall, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Eric Sardinas, and Jeff Healy. There was a tribute to British Blues featuring Bob Hall (Savoy Brown), Tom McGuinness (Manfred Mann), Colin Allen (Focus), Long John Baldry, Kim Simmonds (Savoy Brown), and Peter Green (Fleetwood Mac).
In addition there were equally exciting and impressive Norwegian and European Blues bands like Vidar Busk, Kristin Berglund, The Cadillac Kings, Up To Fly, Amund Maarud, J. T. Lauritsen & The Buckshot Hunters, Kid Andersen & The Rock Awhile Band, Bjørn Berge, Knut Reiersrud/Sven Zetterberg Blues Band, and Notodden Blues Band & Torhild Sivertsen, who supported the headliners.
Ws, work the door collecting tickets, handle security, bartend, waitress, stock and restock food and drink, and clean-up. In addition, a veteran group of 50 volunteers are the drivers who not only shuttle bands to and from the Oslo Airport, but also to and from the hotel to sound checks, shows, and press obligations. A local car dealership donates cars and vans to handle the non-stop flow of musicians.
The festival is a template of city planning and festival organization reinforced by a Blues army of dedicated volunteers. The city turns every available nook into a stage for the music. Normal clubs burst at the seams, restaurants transform into Mississippi jukes, and warehouses sprout stages and sound systems and morph into venues that will easily support 2,000 fans. Two massive tents are erected in the center of town where festival headliners will entertain each night. Even a former church and choir meeting house sheds its sacred skin to boogie each night. In all, the festival builds 25 stages throughout the town.
Essentially, Notodden is an overwhelming four-day club crawl by night, strengthened by smaller stage performances throughout the city during the day. There’s an acoustic stage tucked behind a row of medieval buildings; an electric showcase in the center of the town; a huge, 1,200-person Blues biker bar a block from the city center; and, daily acoustic Blues cruises. The outdoor music breaks at 6 p.m. and the indoor energy starts back at 10 p.m.Each of the eleven evening venues has two performers playing 90-minute sets. Fans buy tickets for the evening performance they want to see. For example, on Friday at the sprawling Sliperihallen warehouse, which holds over 2,000 people, Vidar Busk played from 10 to midnight and The Fabulous Thunderbirds played from midnight until 2 a.m. A smaller venue like the Tapperiet featured Amund Maarud and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. On the main stage in the center of town, two of Scandinavia’s most respected guitarists, Knut Reiersrud and Sven Zetterberg, opened the first night for the Piazza band, and the Notodden Blues Band & Torhild Sivertsen opened Saturday night for Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers.
The festival held its opening night ceremonies on Thursday night at 6 p.m. in the center of Notodden. For 90 minutes, many of the bands who arrived early performed a song or two to whet the crowd’s Blues appetite. Norwegian artists like J. T. Lauritsen, Rita Engedalen, and Kare Virud mixed with John Mayall and the British Blues Masters and gave the black T-shirted crowd exactly what they came to hear.
Once the ceremony ended, there was a photo exhibition of Blues portraits by at the town’s library, which, if not for the Norwegian spoken, could have been a library in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
The opening night of the music issued a challenge to the rest of the nights, try and top this. A crowd of nearly 3,000 fans jammed under the center-of-town tent to cheer two of Norway’s premier Blues guitarists, 34-year-old Vidar Busk and 22-year-old Amund Maarud. It was a set of Busk’s weathered Strat tradin’ licks with Maarud’s red Gibson. Busk traveled to America years ago as a teenager and lived and toured with legendary harp player, the late Rock Bottom. And Maarud traveled to Memphis to compete in the International Blues Challenge two years ago. If Amund comes again, he’s gonna be the talk of Beale Street! These two passionate and inspired guitarists and friends showed this American that, as long as you keep your ears open, there will always be musical discoveries to thrill and excite. Then fans were assaulted by ninety minutes of Eric Sardinas’ fiery electric Blues. When it all ended, one could almost see dawn rising in the east. Remember, in August in Norway daylight stretches well after 10 p.m., which means that dawn then happens shortly after 4 a.m.
The tiny town becomes a mini-Woodstock. Thousands of campers that look like they were at the original Woodstock, appear from nowhere. Tents are set up on nearly every available spit of green. In Norway, you can tent on any land as long as it’s not private property. So, the town is a massive tent city by Friday night. Though the town sells nearly 25,000 tickets for the various shows, almost 35,000 traveled this year to Notodden to party Blues style in the streets 24-7.
Since most fans only attend one show each night, my job was to get to as many as possible. That meant running down the cobblestone streets trying to see as much as possible. Both nights had Kid Anderson, Charlie Musselwhite’s new guitarist, throwing down everything from Little Walter to rhythmic Funk in the tiniest of venues at one end of town while J.T. Lauritsen played his brand of Soul and Blues in a wood-paneled, traditional European pub.
Fans at the center of town were treated to British Blues greats like John Mayall, Kim Simmonds, Bob Hall, Peter Green, Tom McGuiness, and the great Long John Baldry. While the fog machine worked overtime in the Tapperiet, a Norwegian black leather biker bar, guitarist Amund Maarud and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion provided the throbbing vibe until curfew. Norway’s Vidar Busk handled the opening set chores each night for Kim Wilson and the Thunderbirds.
Saturday afternoon featured a three-act show on the banks of the town’s lake. Imagine looking out over Norwegian hillsides while Jeff Healy, the Kim Wilson Blues Revue, and others played all afternoon!
On Saturday night, the action started all over again. The Notodden Blues Band featuring vocalist Torhild Sivertsen opened for Rod Piazza and they immediately raised the performance bar for the night. With looks like Marilyn Monroe and a flair for theatrics, Torhild kept all eyes trained on her throughout each song. After that, Saturday night became a battle of the curfew. Rod, Honey, and the Flyers blasted through “Southern Lady,” “Murder In The First Degree,” and other favorites, while across town, Kim and the T-Birds hit home runs with crowd favorites like “Tuff Enuff,” “Wait On Time,” “Let’s Rock This House,” and others. When each band ended the show, the chants of “We want more!” by 2,000 fans brought each band back over and over. In fact, at the Piazza show, after the band left the stage and boarded the van, Rod started blowin’ “Rockin Robin.” What a thrill to see Honey, Paul, Bill, and Henry dash out of the van and run to their instruments. At the T-Bird show, played at an indoor venue where the temps inside must have been 100 degrees, Kim had to be told by city officials that they were beyond the 2 a.m. curfew and the officials were about to turn off the lights.
The real cool part of this festival for any fans lucky to stay at the Bolkesjo, are the after hours jams. Imagine twenty bands arriving at 3 a.m. ready to party. At one point Gene Taylor of the Thuderbirds was playing as Long John Baldry was calling off tunes like “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” and “Key To The Highway.” Norwegian bands mixing with their U.S. and British idols. After three nights of this, one fan called it the “land version of the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise.”
The Sunday afternoon finale pulled out all the stops for Blues fans. First, the festival showcased some of the finest musicians from the Telemark region of Norway where the festival is held in a tribute to Sun Records called “Notodden to Memphis.” That was followed by a tribute to Little Walter and other harmonica greats performed by a Rod and Kim and backed by a combination of Flyers and T-Birds. It began with Rod and Kim blowin’ “Goin’ Down Slow” at top speed and never they slowed down. With a backing band of Gene Taylor, Richard Innes, Ronnie Weber, and the new T-Bird guitarist Kirk Fletcher, every song offered the ensemble feel and dynamics of the best late night jam sessions you could ever imagine.
They slowed things down with extended solos on “West Helena,” while accelerating the pace on tunes like “Oh Baby” and “That’s Alright.” The highlight was the double chromatic powerhouse, “Black Night.” Rod’s deep, low-end intro gave way to Kim’s “Nobody Cares About Me…” By mid-song, it was the finest chromatic head cutting you’ve ever seen. As they smiled at each other through their sunglasses on the high flyin’ instrumental they ended with, they performed four-bar trade-offs over and over. This is an act promoters in the U.S. looking for something special should consider. If they had only walked the crowd together!
One final note, anyone considering a trip to this fest must combine it with a vacation to this magical country. The population of just over 4 million people fit into a country that stretches 1,700 miles to the north. Thus, it is not uncommon to drive the most picturesque road or meditate at the base or top of a 1,000-foot waterfall or study a Viking longboat in perfect solitude. Quite a difference from standing two or three hours to see Michaelangelo’s David in Florence with tour bus after tour bus of videotaping tourists. So while most American tourists are complaining about lines and waits, you can plan activities at your own pace.
Most first time travelers book a nice three-day excursion that leaves from Oslo and offers tours of mountains, fjords, and glacial waterfalls. The must see trip from Oslo is either train or car to Bergen on the Western coast. Within an hour of leaving Oslo, the formidable mountains of the Western fjords begin to rise.
The first fjord stop must be the train from Flam to Myrdal. For 20 kilometers, this fifty-minute ride spirals up rugged snow-capped mountains and down into lush meadows and orchards along the Aurlandsfjord, a finger-like branch off one of Norway’s main fjords, Sognefjord. Have cameras ready when the train stops at one of the many cascading waterfalls along the journey. Tourists then board a boat that travels through the famous Sognefjord to the old city of Bergen. Called the gateway to the fjords, Bergen is a city that looks and feels like a tiny San Francisco, except it’s centuries older. Then these tours take visitors back to Oslo three days later. However, there is a lot to see in this country and if you are adventurous, you can play out your own fjord adventure.
Whether your Nordic travels include breathtaking vistas, striking waterfalls, bustling cities, or what is clearly one of the world’s best music festivals, Norway is a destination that will re-center one’s spirit.
By Art Tipaldi
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