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  • Tom H

ABBA Voyage | Opening Night (26 May 2022)

This past week, thanks to the Official International ABBA Fan Club, I was given the opportunity to attend the Opening Night performance of ABBA Voyage in London on May 26. If you haven't heard about this brand new state-of-the-art digital concert experience that's taking place in the new specially-built, 3000-person capacity ABBA Arena in London's East End over the next year, I'll provide some background and context.

ABBA had been toying with the idea of presenting a virtual version of themselves since 2014, in a concept that initially centered around music videos. Over the next seven years, the idea was refined as continued technological advances were made in the world of virtual reality and digital media. ABBA's Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus eventually decided to work with Industrial Light & Magic, a visual effects company founded by George Lucas, to make the concept a reality. Ludvig Andersson (Benny's son) and Svana Gisla would be the producers who would work tirelessly to complete the project.

The digital avatars (or ABBAtars as they are called) of the band would be created from meticulously captured movements of each of the ABBA members as they performed each of the show's songs. The digital capture was completed over a 5-week period to an audience of technicians, hundreds of motion-capture cameras, and apparently the invited cleaning crew and 'dinner ladies' of Filmhuset Stockholm where the performances took place. The idea of bringing in the Filmhuset crew was to create some semblance of an audience for ABBA (wearing their motion capture suits) to perform in front of. I find it incredible that everyone involved in the project managed to keep it all under the radar throughout the muti-year creative process.

The video below (starting at 1 minute, 30 seconds) does a great job describing the motion capture process and the resulting ABBA Voyage concert experience.

While I've been known to travel a distance to experience good music, heading to ABBA Voyage was a bit of a leap for me. I hadn't traveled anywhere by airplane in three years (thanks Covid), let alone internationally and on my own (I just had one ticket). But I couldn't pass on an opening night experience. Who would be there? Would all four ABBA members make an appearance? They've only done that less than a handful of times in the past 40 years. If they were ever going to pop on stage, surely it would have to be for opening night of their new show. Having grown up with the band's music, but never having experienced an ABBA performance, ABBA Voyage would probably be as good as it's ever going to get for me.

The closest thing to an ABBA concert that I'd previously experienced was a one-off Benny Anderssons Orkester (BAO) benefit event (A Midsommar Night's Dream) for the American Swedish Institute in St Paul, Minnesota in March 2006. The band played for hours at this dinner and live performance. Toward the end of the evening, I stood with the crowd on the dancefloor a few feet away from Benny at the piano. The band performed two ABBA covers ("Ring Ring" and "Why Did It Have To Be Me"). It was something to see and to feel the energy and excitement as Benny jammed at the piano like he was still in his 30's. He clearly looked like was having the time of his life.

Fast forward to ABBA Voyage opening night. On the day prior to the event, the red carpet had been set up in front of the arena, and rumors of the celebrities anticipated to attend were being circulated on social meda and in the press. And there were unconfirmed reports that all four members would attend the opening night performance. The hype was on!

During the red carpet event on opening night, a black British taxi pulled up to the arena from which all four ABBA members emerged to walk the red carpet, pose for photos, and speak to the press that was assembled. Once beyond the red carpet, ABBA took a few photos with fans and guests who were queuing to enter the arena. They looked amazing for four pop stars in their 70's - Agnetha and Friday elegantly dressed in Fendi, Benny in a colorful floral longline jacket by Yohji Yamamoto, and Björn in a smart suit jacket.

As the pre-event activities continued, celebrities to walk the red carpet and/or attend the opening night peformance included Kylie Minogue, Kate Moss, The King & Queen of Sweden, Jarvis Cocker (of Pulp), Elaine Paige, Sharleen Spiteri (of the UK band Texas), Keira Knightley, Zara Larsson, Jonas Åkerlund and more.

And the show? It was surreal, mindblowing and more than I'd ever imagined it would be. I really didn't have an idea what it might look like - I kept an open mind prior to the event. The set list is public now, so it's safe to post a bit about it. The show opens with an instrumental track, "Skallgång," taken from Benny Andersson's 1989 solo album, which then transitions into "The Visitors" as the ABBAtars rise up from the stage. For me, this was one of the most breathtaking parts of the show and the audience's first look at the ABBAtars. So unbelievably realistic! If you didn't know any better, you'd think there were actual humans performing on stage. The promo video clips of the ABBA Voyage show that you find online really don't do proper justice to what you experience in person. It's seriously the most realistic digital creation I've ever seen.

There are definitely some surprises in the show - I'll leave those spoilers out of this post. Some song highlights for me were modified/alternative versions of "When All Is Said And Done" and "Thank You For The Music," the visually stimulating "Lay All Your Love On Me," and "Don't Shut Me Down," taken from ABBA's 2021 Voyage comeback album, and peformed in this concert by late-70's versions of themselves.

Finally, the icing on the cake for the opening night performance was the foursome taking the stage to wave and bow to the crowd after the final number. Video and audio recordings were prohibited during the opening night performance, but when all four ABBA members walked on stage, smartphones immediately emerged. I did my best to capture this special moment, battling all the other attendees attempting to do the same!

I occasionally am asked "What is it that's so special or intriguing about ABBA for you?"

For me, the heart of ABBA is the songwriting and composition in the music. I see Benny as a modern day musical Mozart. I think that talent becomes even more apparent in the various post-ABBA music projects he's embarked upon - the musicals CHESS and Kristina från Duvemåla, his stripped down Piano solo album, the Benny Anderssons Orkester albums, soundtracks for films such as Songs from the Second Floor and You The Living. Without the songs themselves, we would have nothing. Björn is the lyric man telling the stories, crafting the catchy words and phrases that become engrained in your head as you sing along to an ABBA song. Then there are the vocals of Agnetha and Frida, impressive and uber-talented singers in their own right. Together, their voices complement each other like nothing else on earth. Some have referred to that combined voice as the "fifth member" of ABBA. And one can't forget the production ingenuity of ABBA's sound engineer Michael B. Tretow (up until Voyage) who was responsible for the clever, layered arrangements of vocals and instruments, mimicking the Spector 'wall of sound.'

Over the years, these four musicians have made music whenever and however they wanted to - and for all the right reasons. They never aimed to write hit songs - just good songs. The members have each been described as genuine, real, unpretentious, and down to earth. They haven't lost their humble roots for as successful of a band as they are. I still think they truly don't comprehend at times how impactful they have been to their fanbase and the music world.

I highly recommend checking out ABBA Voyage if you can - you won't be disappointed!

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